Targu Mures on verge of becoming football's unlikeliest champion ever
They are a small, newly promoted team who were expected to struggle in a relegation battle with a bunch of ageing has-beens in their squad. They controversially sacked not one but two coaches by December. Their general manager abandoned the club as well. They very nearly sold their only promising young player during the winter break. Their best known player was underperforming and was close to having his contract terminated. Their top scorer is a fervent and vocal fan of their rivals' president. They have reportedly failed to pay the players' salaries for five months. Before the season started, the odds on them winning the Romanian title stood at 151-1.
Please meet ASA Targu Mures, who are on the verge of becoming one of the unlikeliest champions football has ever known anywhere on the globe.
The current club was established in 2008 on the ruins of its predecessor, which held the same name, after it went bankrupt. They have never won any silverware in their entire history. Last season Targu Mures had a rather mediocre campaign in the second division, luckily scraping through the promotional playoffs with 10 wins and six defeats in 20 matches. The credit went to coach Adrian Falub, only appointed in April 2014, who achieved a new Romanian record of four personal promotions, including the previous one with Targu Mures in 2010.
Originally, their only aspiration was avoiding relegation -- not an easy task given the fact that the league is about to be trimmed next season, and no fewer than six of the 18 teams are going down. However, Falub was unexpectedly fired in late September despite the fact that Targu Mures performed well above expectations and were sixth in the table. "I was told that the team doesn't show up," the surprised coach said in an interview to Prosport.
Cristian Pustai was named as his successor, but he never saw eye-to-eye with general manager Daniel Stanciu, who opposed his appointment from the very beginning. They were unable to work together, and by December both were gone -- Stanciu left for Dinamo Bucharest, but Pustai was fired anyway, despite improving the team's league position to fourth place.
That is when the management decided to upgrade their objective. The team now had to try to qualify for Europa League, but nobody could possibly imagine fighting for the title. Steaua Bucharest, the reigning champions and the best team in the country, led the league comfortably, and Targu Mures trailed them by 13 points.
In fact, building up the momentum wasn't the most important thing for Targu Mures. The club's difficult financial situation forced them to sell the brilliant 21-year-old winger Claudiu Bumba to Astra Giurgiu for just €200,000. The player signed with his new team in January and started training, but then it turned out that Astra were unable to pay the fee on time, and Targu Mures demanded that the deal be cancelled. Bumba had to return, and some fans questioned his motivation after the failed adventure.
Another player who almost left Targu Mures in January was Ianis Zicu. The winger was once considered a very promising prospect, and Inter Milan signed him in 2004, but that didn't work out at all. At 31 years of age, after spells in South Korea, his form was very poor in the first months of the season, and the club decided to fire him. Zicu pleaded for a second chance and promised the club he would change his attitude. He was true to his word, scoring five goals after Christmas.
Liviu Ciobotariu was named the third coach of the season, and the 15th in the last five years at the club where stability is absolutely impossible. You might remember him as a no-nonsense defender at the 1998 World Cup, when Romania famously defeated England in the group stage, before eventually losing to Croatia in the last 16. Ciobotariu's coaching career was far from illustrious, and Targu Mures are his 10th club in nine years. Few expected him to improve the team that was already overachieving. Incredibly, he managed to do so, and more.
Targu Mures' record in 2015 is astonishing to say the least: 11 wins and two draws in 13 matches. "They are just playing like a team. Ciobotariu managed to make them function as a unit," local journalist Mihai Andries tells ESPN FC.
The most sensational turnaround this season was accomplished by Ousmane N'Doye, the 37-year-old Senegalese central midfielder, elder brother of Hull City striker Dame N'Doye. Never known for his scoring abilities, he miraculously turned into Targu Mures' most potent attacking weapon, netting 12 times in 20 matches and drawing somewhat bizarre comparisons to Yaya Toure.
Gabriel Muresan, a 33-year-old defensive midfielder of CFR Cluj fame, found a new lease of life alongside N'Doye after a disappointing year in Siberia with Tom Tomsk and is excelling at free kicks. Bumba is playing his heart out on the wing, and the same can be said about Zicu, who suddenly became a fan favourite.
At the same time, Steaua completely collapsed. Having sold both star midfielder Lucian Sanmartean and Polish centre-back Lukasz Szukala to Al-Ittihad of Saudi Arabia, and top scorer Claudiu Keseru to Al-Gharafa of Qatar, they failed to replaced them, and their form suffered immensely. They started 2015 by losing to Rapid Bucharest and suffered three more painful defeats that saw their lead trimmed to a single point ahead of hosting Targu Mures in the game of the season a week ago.
Before the game, N'Doye sported his new shoes, with the name of Steaua owner Gigi Becali written on one of them. Just imagine an opponent playing Real Madrid with the name of Florentino Perez on his boots. Yet N'Doye has publically declared his love for Becali many a time and even had a party at his home when the controversial businessman was released from his jail sentence. Nevertheless, the Senegalese star refused four offers to sign for Steaua during his career, and he has an unbelievable record against them.
Going into the game, N'Doye had won seven times in a row against Steaua with different teams (Dinamo Bucharest, Astra, Vaslui and Targu Mures) -- a sequence that dated back to 2009. He made it eight with a 1-0 win thanks to a goal by Zicu, who celebrated by taking off his shirt. N'Doye also had a message post-match: "Steaua are unable to beat me." As a result, Targu Mures leapfrogged the champions into the first place, taking a two-point lead.
The result was a bit controversial since Steaua were denied a penalty, and some would claim that Targu Mures have been helped by referees throughout the season. According to Gazeta Sportulirol, the minnows enjoyed 10 mistakes in their favour, and there were no bad calls against them. On the other hand, Steaua only had five poor decisions in their favour, and 10 against them, but this is certainly not the main reason behind their spectacular collapse.
These are not the only negative headlines Targu Mures are making these days. There are claims that the players have been unpaid for five months, and Muresan is owed as much as €30,000. Nevertherless, that doesn't affect their motivation, and on Saturday the sensational leaders achieved their biggest win of the season, thrashing Viitorul Constanta 6-1.
With just four games left and a two-point lead in the table, the most improbable title triumph ever could soon become a reality. They were 101-1 underdogs as recently as February, but Targu Mures are about to win their first ever title and become the first promoted team in Romanian history to be crowned champions. This feat can't even be compared to the famous achievements of Nottingham Forest in 1978 or Kaiserslautern in 1998. "It's like Reading winning the Premier League," a fan told me. Or even more surprising than that.
Michael Yokhin is ESPN FC's European football writer. Follow him on Twitter: @Yokhin