Final throw for ageing squad

CHAMPIONSHIP COUNTDOWN No 2 Romania
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It was at Italia 90 that the flag of Romania, with a hole where the communist crest had been, became a symbol of liberation from the Ceaucescu regime. Taking part, rather than winning, was enough then. For different reasons, it may have to be so again at Euro 96.

In the intervening World Cup, a Romanian team arguably at the peak of their collective and individual powers went to a land that boasts of opportunity and wasted theirs. The same generation, still dominated by Gheorghe Hagi, now face what could be their last major tournament.

They will do so as an ageing squad, with some conspicuous exceptions, who have had a less than rigorous preparation for the finals. Hagi, for instance, is in his 32nd year, a veteran of the finals in France in 1984. An attacking midfielder capable of mixing the vision and precision of Maradona with the scurrying audacity of Kinkladze, he spent much of the season in Barcelona's reserves and has been told he will no longer be required next campaign.

Optimists argue that at least Hagi should be fresher than opponents who have been on a 50-match treadmill. Realists know that skill and experience are often wasted unless complemented by a sharp competitive edge. A similar problem confronts Romania's defensive organiser, the 32-year-old Miodrag Belodedici, who turns out in the Spanish Second Division.

The former Steaua Bucharest coach, Anghel Iordanescu, even recalled Marius Lacatus - also 32 and regarded as past his sell-by date at the time of the United States campaign - for the qualifying rounds. Lacatus is back with Steaua, but the collapse of Romanian League standards since the revolution freed players to go abroad could leave him off the pace.

Iordanescu, whose urbane personality belies his status as a general in the army, has had one of the most distracting build-ups to the finals east of Terry Venables, including a resignation later withdrawn.

It is not all doom and gloom. Dan Petrescu has established himself as one of the few truly European defenders in the English game. Gica Popescu, while not cut out for the cut and thrust of the Premiership, has practically defined the libero's role in the Netherlands and Spain.

Up front, too, Florin Raducioiu proved in America that if Hagi's laser left foot makes the chances, he can take them. After failing at Milan, he now plays across town from Popescu at Espanol. Not least of Iordanescu's tasks will be to integrate these scattered troops into a fighting unit. Few doubt that his main strategy will be counter-attack.

A Hagi determined to show that he remains an influential figure could ensure Romania have their moments. But the likelihood is that history will see the successive World Cup shoot-outs as the closest his group came to being a genuine international force. Nor can they have been encouraged to find France, 3-1 victors in Bucharest, in the penultimate group match, waiting to cut a hole in their optimism in the first match.

LIKELY SQUAD

GOALKEEPERS

Florin Prunea (Dinamo Bucharest)

Bogdan Stelea (Steaua Bucharest)

Florin Alexandru Tene (Rapid Bucharest)

DEFENDERS

Dan Petrescu (Chelsea)

Gheorghe Mihali (Guingamp, France)

Gica Popescu (Barcelona)

Daniel Prodan (Steaua Bucharest)

Tibor Selymes (Cercle Bruges)

Anton Dobos (Steaua Bucharest)

Corneliu Papura (Universitatea Craiova)

MIDFIELDERS

Ioan Sabau (Brescia)

Radu Niculescu (National Bucharest)

Nica Panduru (Benfica)

Iulian Filipescu (Steaua Bucharest)

Dorinel Munteanu (Cologne)

Dorin Mateut (Dinamo Bucharest)

Ioan Angelo Lupescu (Bayer Leverkusen)

FORWARDS

Ilie Dumitrescu (West Ham)

Constantin Gilca (Steaua Bucharest)

Gheorghe Hagi (Barcelona)

Florin Raducioiu (Espanol)

Ion Vladoiu (Steaua Bucharest)

Marius Lacatus (Steaua Bucharest)

Adrian Ilie (Steaua Bucharest)

Dinu Moldovan (Neuchatel Xamax, Switz)

Gheorghe Craioveanu (Real Sociedad)

Player to watch

Gica Popescu

(Barcelona)

English crowds did not see the best of Popescu at Spurs. He became cast as a malingerer, with Alan Sugar claiming that a "cracked eyelash" would sideline him. He has been happier with Barcelona, playing the specialist libero rather than a lightweight midfielder, and will have similar freedom with Romania.

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