Mutu back from drug ban to hit heights for Romania

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The Independent Football

The lack of any British involvement at Euro 2008 may mean some fans lose touch with the whereabouts of their favourite players for a few weeks, but for others with longer memories it is a chance to catch up and find out what their old boys are doing.

A case in point is Romania's Adrian Mutu. Once of Chelsea, the striker who left London with a bad case of the blues after failing a drugs test in 2004 is now well and truly rehabilitated in Italy and is his country's key man as they attempt to battle their way into contention.

"Mutu was the best player in Serie A last season," says Dan Petrescu, the former Chelsea and Romania full-back. Despite what some people may believe, with only one Italian club, Roma, getting to the last eight of the Champions' League, there is still some competition for that particular claim.

The man Chelsea could do without is indispensable to his current club, Fiorentina. With 23 goals in 35 Serie A and European games, Mutu was certainly their outstanding player as the side from Tuscany held on to the last Champions' League berth for next season. He also helped them to the semi-finals of the Uefa Cup, before losing to Rangers on penalties.

"Mutu has played for so many teams in Italy – Internazionale, Parma, Juventus, Fiorentina – and it's more difficult to play in Italy," says Petrescu, who joined Chelsea from Sheffield Wednesday in October 1995 for £2.2 million and stayed five years. "He has improved since he left Chelsea. He scores more goals and is stronger on the ball."

Mutu, now 28, joined Chelsea for £15.8m in August 2003 from Parma, in the first flush of Abramovich-itis, just after the likes of Juan Sebastian Veron and Damien Duff had moved to Stamford Bridge, but just before Hernan Crespo. None is at the club any more, but Mutu was first out, after failing a drugs test for cocaine a year after signing. Chelsea had seen him play 38 times, with 10 goals in return.

A seven-month ban followed. Having already played for four years in Italy it was natural he should return there, but he owed his initial introduction to Serie A to those who had gone before him. Ever since the fall of the Iron Curtain at the end of 1989, strong links had been formed between Romania and Italy. Gheorghe Hagi, Petrescu and Florin Raducioiu, part of the most talented group of players in Romania's history, who reached the quarter-finals of the World Cup in the US in 1994, had already enjoyed Serie A.

That generation took their country to the next three tournaments but never to such heights again, although they did beat England in the group stages of France 98 – thanks to a goal from Petrescu – and at Euro 2000, which caused the elimination of Kevin Keegan's men.

Romania's dubious reward for topping their qualifying group ahead of Holland and reaching their first tournament in eight years was a rematch with the Dutch, plus Italy and France. In other words, a "Group of Death".

But Petrescu, who won 95 caps and now coaches in his home country with Unirea Urziceni, runners-up in the domestic cup, feels Romania should not be too worried about Holland. That still leaves the world champions, Italy, and France. "It's a tough group but we have a chance. The first game is key, against France," he says. "You know the first game is important. The players need a good result because if you lose, you lose confidence. To get to the quarter-finals will be very difficult but they have to try."

Petrescu is encouraged by the partnership forged between Mutu and his fellow striker Ciprian Marica, of Stuttgart, which brought 11 goals in qualifying, along with the experience of Christian Chivu in defence.

Just as importantly he feels that Romania have, for the first time since the end of his and Hagi's era, found a togetherness under the coach Victor Piturca which could prove vital. "This is our first tournament since Hagi retired," he says. "This is very important for the country and for the players. They are more like a team now than they have been for the last eight years."