Last weekend, Zenit’s 2-1 home win over Dinamo secured what at times has seemed like an inevitable title for the St Petersburg side, Alexandru Epureanu’s goal for the visitors not enough to delay the party in Russia’s second city, and Luciano Spalletti’s men can now coast into the end of the longest season in Russian league history knowing that there is nothing to play for except their players’ form ahead of the upcoming European Championships. With the majority of Zenit’s midfield and attack likely to be included in Dick Advocaat’s 23-man Russian squad, the likes of Roman Shirokov, Alexander Kerzhakov, Igor Denisov and of course Andrei Arshavin will all be looking to convince the Dutchman that their understanding at club level will translate into a successful campaign for the national side.
However, Zenit’s romp to the title does not mean that the Russian league lies dormant, or that all the issues are settled. Indeed, the introduction of the relegation play-off ensures that this can never be the case, but even in the top half there is still everything to play for bar the main prize. With Russia’s UEFA co-efficient slipping, only two teams are eligible for Champions League qualification next season, and with Zenit securing passage straight to the group stage by taking the championship, there is a plethora of teams lining up ready to lay claim to a place in world football’s most lucrative competition.
With two rounds of fixtures remaining, just five points separate CSKA in 2nd and Anzhi in 5th, with only Kuban Krasnodar completely out of the running for European competition. Whilst the consolation prize of Europa League participation is on offer for the teams finsihing 3rd, 4th and 5th, a spot Rubin and Lokomotiv are also in contention for, the financial benefits of Champions League football are plain to see, and is also likely to give the successful side a key advantage when it comes to the summer transfer window and squad strengthening process.
This season, the race for Europe is made all the more tense by the league split, meaning of course that the teams competing with each other for qualification are not relying on their rivals slipping up against relegation battlers, but must simply beat them on the playing field and perform better against the top teams in the country. With so few games remaining, every match is vital.
Accordingly, the midweek results could not have gone any better for Leonid Slutsky’s CSKA. With only one win in their previous six matches, they were practically gifted their game at Lokomotiv through Manuel da Costa’s early red card, and ran out 3-0 winners thanks to a second half brace from Zoran Tosic. Elsewhere in the top half, Rubin were twice pegged back by a Zenit side with little to play for, Spartak and Dinamo battled to a 1-1 draw, and Guus Hiddink’s Anzhi threw away a two goal in Krasnodar against a Kuban team who dominated proceedings and probably deserved the win. From potentially failing to make Europe, coming out of the round as the only victors means that CSKA will at least reach the Europa League next year.
Whether they are able to stay in the Champions League spot is entirely unclear. In the next set of fixtures, none of their rivals can guarantee three points – Spartak travel to champions Zenit, Dinamo host an unpredictable Lokomotiv, whilst Anzhi will have to break down a Rubin team renowned for its stifling defence. That leaves CSKA to host Kuban, on paper the weakest team in the Championship Group, but a side that Dan Petrescu has turned into an impressive outfit and one which deserves its place in the table.
That takes us to 13th May and what is likely to be European judgement day for the challenging sides. Assuming that CSKA still hold the advantage going into the last round of matches – the only matchday in which all games are played simultaneously – they will still require a win in Kazan to ensure the Champions League spot. Meanwhile Dinamo travel to Krasnodar, Spartak face a derby at Lokomotiv, and Anzhi host a Zenit side who will no doubt be determined to stamp their authority on an impressive season. Any slip-ups from Slutsky’s side, and their rivals will be ready to pounce.
On paper, they should have enough to do it, facing the teams currently in 7th and 8th in a convenient quirk of the fixture list. However, CSKA’s recent form, last two matches notwithstanding, has been less than encouraging for their fans, and there will be few with the confidence to predict a comfortable progression into the Champions League. Failure to do so will almost certainly spell the end of Slutsky’s reign, a shame given his undoubted potential, but hardly unfair given the spectacular collapse in the second half of the season.
Indeed, the manager’s situation in Russia is a precarious one in general – at CSKA, Slutsky’s days appear numbered, Valery Karpin is being hounded out at Spartak, whilst Sergei Silkin’s future at Dinamo has yet to be decided. A disappointing year for Rubin has left Kurban Berdyev faced with accusations that he has taken the Tatar side as far as he can, and at Lokomotiv the situation is never clear even at the best of times. Moscow is a scary place to be a football manager, and the Russian league in generally is worryingly full of bosses on the edge of their seats and the end of their tethers. What happens over the next two weeks could well shape more than European qualification for next season.