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West Ham United v FC Astra

Filed: Wednesday, 29th July 2015
By: Preview Percy

Preview Percy went to Malta for last week's match against Birkirkara. We'd just like to apologise to the good people of that fine island - it wasn't our idea. We'd also like to apologise to Romania for what follows.....

Two rounds down and another 94 to go (or something). If it’s Thursday night it must be the Thursday Night League and our next opponents are FC Astra Girgiu who are based in the Romanian town of, er, Girgiu. The home leg is this Thursday at the usual time with the return over there a week later.

After Andorra and Malta, I guess that Romania opposition is another step forward in terms of league quality for the opposition, though the Romanians – not to mention the Maltese - might be a bit cheesed-off to discover that, according to UEFA they are roughly on a par with the Scottish leagues. Astra are, of course, one of the less familiar clubs in Romania, which has traditionally been dominated by the Bucharest giants Dinamo and Steua. Despite this, the club is one of the older clubs in Romania having been founded over 90 years ago. The club started as a series of works teams for an oil company based in different towns across the country. Eventually these teams merged to form one club who then set about moving into the Romanian League system. There have been numerous name changes following mergers and, more recently, a change of home from Ploiesti, where they had been based for 91 years, to Girgiu.

Nationally, they had been bumping about the secondary and tertiary levels of Romanian Football before finally making the leap up to the top flight in 1998. They hung around with the big boys until 2003 when they were relegated back to Liga II. Then Liga III. However, they’ve been on an upward curve since then, winning the Liga III title in 2007/08 and following that up with promotion from Liga II in second place in 2008/09. After a few relegation battles the last three seasons have seen them finish 4th, 2nd and 4th.

2012/13 was probably their peak as they took the Romanian Cup on penalties from Champions Steua on penalties, also defeating the same team in the Romanian Super Cup.

Whilst we’re on the subject of the Romanian League it’s fair to say that the league has not been in the rudest of financial health of late. Of last season’s 18 clubs in the top flight, no fewer than 7 entered into some sort of insolvency arrangement – including Dinamo Bucharest. They cut back the size of the league from 18 teams to 14 for this term which, incidentally, commenced on 10 July. This reduction was achieved by relegating the bottom 6 sides into the respective regionalised second tier leagues and promoting the winners of each of the two sections. Incidentally one of the promoted teams from last season were our old friends Poli Timisoara, who we faced in the 1980/81 Cup Winners Cup.

The league is one of those affairs that has been tinkered with by a no doubt well-meaning committee so that, once everyone has played everyone twice, they split the league. The top 6 go into another round of fixtures carrying forward half of the points they won in the first half of the season (rounded downwards in the case of half points) to decide the league. The same will happen with the bottom eight teams to decide relegation. The question that immediately leaps to mind is “why”? Ok there has to be some alteration to the system to ensure that a full league season can take place but it seems rather an odd way of doing things.

As mentioned the season has started already and, at time of writing, Astra sit in 6th place of the nascent league having won, drawn and lost one of their three matches so far. In fact but for CFR Cluj’s starting the season with a five point penalty for an infringement of licencing regulations (watering down the beer I expect) Astra would be a further place down into the relegation group zone, though with just the three games played it may be a bit soon to hit the panic button just yet.

On the European front, this is their third consecutive season in the Thursday Night League. In 2013/14 they were knocked out at the play-of stage by Maccabi Haifa 3-1 on aggregate. Last season they made the group stage by disposing of the not-inconsiderable scalp of Lyon on away goals in the play-off round. Despite a home win over Dinamo Zagreb and a home draw against Celtic, that was pretty much as good as it got or the “Black Devils”, who lost every other match, twice shipping five goals away in Zagreb and at Red Bull Salzburg, a club from a city as beautiful as the club’s name isn’t.

As for their players, whoever was responsible for the draw in this competition has clearly sat there and said: “I know. Let’s give that miserable old so and so who does the previews for Kumb a hard time in each round. Let’s give him a tough time researching stuff”. After Andorra and Malta I thought Romania ought to be a doddle. Well it might have been had we been playing Dinamo Bucharest maybe. Information on Astra’a players is, however, a bit thin on the ground. I can find stuff about the club itself easily enough, but the biographical details for each player seems to consist of the standard phrase ***** ****** is a professional footballer who plays for FC Astra Girgiu. Like, thanks.

Their first choice ‘keeper has the wonderful name of Silviu Lung Jr. The usual biographical source helpfully informs us that Lung Jr is a professional footballer for FC Astra Girgiu, adding – in case the reader is hard of thinking - that he is the son of Silviu Lung. A bit more digging about the Romanian databases provided the information that he has made over 100 appearances for Astra since signing from Universitatea Craiova in 2011. He’s been capped three times at senior level by the Romanian national side, though the fact that the first of these came in 2010 and the last 2013 suggests that he’s not uppermost in the mind of the national coach.

The skipper is Constantin Budescu, a midfielder who makes a useful contribution on the goalscoring side of things. Last season’s top scorer with 10, he picked up the soubriquet “Hero Of Cyprus” for his efforts in the 2013 Thursday Night League when he picked up a brace against Omonia Nicosia. Which is nice I suppose, but it’s hardly “Lion Of Vienna” stuff is it? (ask your great-grandad about that reference). He is also a professional footballer for FC Astra. Apparently.

They brought in Portuguese defender Geraldo Alves during the close season. A signing from their erstwhile local rivals Petrolul Ploiesti, at 34 Alves is at the veteran stage of his career, which includes shifts at Befica, AEK Athens and, Steua Bucharest. A professional footballer with Astra Girgiu, he is the elder brother of Bruno, the much-capped Portuguese centre half.

It seems that no European team these days, however unlikely the location, is complete without a Brazilian. Astra are no exception – in fact they have a pair in the form of midfielder William De Amorim (“William”) and Fernando Boldrin (“Rick”), who arrived in the close season. Both William and Rick are professional footballers who – oh you get the picture.

And so to us. Having popped over to stay with our friends at the Dom Mintoff Home For The Frankly Quite Bonkers last week we found ourselves in the middle of a heatwave, the likes of which had even the locals running for shelter. Our mobility scooters were melting and it was all we could do to sit for much of the day in the nearest air-conditioned hostelry with a pint of Cisk. For medicinal purposes, obviously. Even the late kick-off of the match still saw us sitting in temperatures of the mid-80’s and it was humid and uncomfortable to sit and watch. So it must have been horrible for the players.

We didn’t play well – and for the first 20 minutes at least, tactically we seemed to play into their hands. It was as if nobody had considered the fact that they would need to score to have any chance of progressing. We duly conceded – a good goal but one that stemmed from our inability to keep hold of the ball in the early period.

The other way we played into their hands was on the disciplinary front. Yes the bloke that Tomkins tangled with made a twenty course meal with fine wines and post prandial liqueurs in the drawing room out of the incident, but Tomkins did react thereby giving the ref (who seemed to be on work experience) the chance to make a decision, however incorrect. That’s the second “sucker” red card we’ve had in this competition and, assuming that Astra have seen video of the matches played so far they may be considering continuing the trend. They might possibly have a look at targeting Mark Noble who, for a ten-minute spell in the first half looked like a second yellow in waiting. It’s definitely an area we need to improve on.

With Sakho and Tomkins out – there was an appeal proposed re Tomkins but I’ve heard nothing as yet – we are shorn of two of our goal threats. Sakho will be available for the second leg though. Squad-wise, Payet, Jenkinson, Valencia and Ogbonna are all eligible for selection according to the UEFA list and Payet in particular would be a welcome addition to the Thursday Night League squad – his pre-season friendly appearances so far have been impressive so if he’s fit enough use him I say. Jenkinson’s return would also be an improvement on the game-but-limited Joey O’Brien should he be fit enough to join in. I’m not sure how much running he could have done by hiding behind the sofa every time Sunderland came knocking though.

Prediction? Well with all due respect to Birkirkara, who played out of their skins to push us all the way last week, this match represents another step up in terms of the class of opposition faced – the fact that they beat someone of the pedigree of Lyon on their way to last season’s group stage shows that they are capable of causing an upset in this competition.

However, the Maltese adventure will have proved useful for a number of reasons. Apart from the improvement in fitness levels gained from playing 120 minutes in that heat – one of the targets at this stage of the season – the scare will have concentrated the minds of both players and staff and brought into focus the requirements of the task in hand.

With our opening match at the Library coming only a few days after our trip to Romania it would be nice to be able to rest some key players from the second leg and, with a strong squad promised for the home leg much will depend on whether the quality of finishing can improve on that displayed in the home leg of the Birkirkara match. Overall I think we should have too much for them so I’ll take us to get through to the Play-Off Round on aggregate.

Enjoy the games!

When last we met: You haven’t learned your lesson from last time, have you?

How did they get here?:

QR1: Bye
QR2: Inverness Caledonian Thistle 1-0 (a) 0-0 (h) (agg 1-0)

Danger Man: Constantin Budescu – last season’s top scorer.

Referee: 1st Leg: Adrien Jacottet (Switzerland) – can’t be as bad as last week’s Albanian. Can he?

Daft Fact Of The Week:: Famous people born in Romania include:

Johnny Weismuller – five times Olympic gold medal winner and Tarzan actor;

Nadia Comenici – five times Olympic gold medal winner and the first gymnast to achieve a perfect 10 score in competition; and

Nicolae Ceausescu – zero times Olympic gold medal winner and former President. He was tried and executed with his wife Elena within an hour on Christmas Day 1989 as part of the collapse of Communism in Eastern Europe. Just to add to his misery, HM The Queen stripped him of his honorary Order Of The Bath 24 hours before the execution and, just to really rub it in, one of the first actions of the new regime after his death was to abolish the death penalty.

Please note that the opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily represent the views of, nor should be attributed to, KUMB.com.

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