If, after the first round of matches in this season’s Champions League, you’d have put money on both Russian clubs progressing to the knockout stages, you’d have been labelled either as a brave man or a fool. The two teams in question were a CSKA side who had star strike Seydou Doumbia to thank for a last-minute leveller in Lille, and a Zenit St Petersburg who had contrived to take the lead only to go down 2-1 to APOEL Nicosia of all teams, at this point still considered to be making up the numbers.
Even before the final group fixtures, progression looked uncertain at best for the Russian representatives. With APOEL securing the most unlikely of progressions before the last matches, Zenit travelled to Portugal knowing that defeat to Porto would see them tumble out of the competition and into the Europa League, and just two wins from five previous rounds their hopes were not high. Elsewhere, CSKA were coming to terms with an even bigger task – to stand any chance of going through from the bottom of Group B, they needed to beat the mighty Inter in the San Siro, and at the same time hope for a draw in the other group fixture.
Ultimately, both sides made it through. Zenit owe their progression almost entirely to the inspired performance of goalkeeper Vyacheslav Malafeev, a figure much-maligned by supporters of the national team but whose clean sheet earned his team one of the most lucrative points in their history. The official statistics show that Zenit registered just a single, off target shot to Porto’s nine, but at the final whistle the score remained 0-0 and Luciano Spalletti’s men can prepare for the knockout stages.
In contrast, CSKA’s progression far more eventful. As long as the match between Lille and Trabzonspor remained goalless, the Moscow club had a chance, and after an even first half were rewarded when who else but Seydou Doumbia fired past Luca Castellazi. The joy was shortlived though, as Esteban Cambiasso equalised within a minute, and CSKA returned to the bottom of the group. Then, with time running out for the visitors, a corner came in from Aleksandrs Cauna, and centre back Vasili Berezutsky rose highest to put CSKA back into the lead. With the match in France finishing goalless, it was enough to send the Army Men through.
There will also be two Russian representatives in the knockout rounds of the less prestigious Europa League. Lokomotiv Moscow, who are a side definied by their inconsistency and unpredictability at the moment, qualified comfortably from their group despite losing 5-3 to Anderlecht in their final game. Even before kickoff they were guaranteed progression – a second defeat to the Belgians early in the competition their only dropped points in a group also containing AEK Athens and Austrian side Sturm Graz. With twelve points being insufficient to avoid a Champions League dropout in the next phase, Moscow’s second representatives could well face high level opposition despite their own impressive campaign.
Rubin Kazan are the fourth and final Russian side flying the flag in Europe, and the Tatars could consider themselves unlucky not to have had an easier route to the knockouts. An opening day thrashing of Shamrock Rovers and an exchange of 1-0s with Tottenham Hotspur should have put Kurban Berdyev’s side in the clear, however a poor performance against PAOK Salonika at home saw them concede a late equaliser, and needing a point in Greece on the final matchday to be sure of qualification. Ultimately, Nelson Valdez’s strike was enough for a 1-1 draw despite the early dismissal of keeper Sergei Ryzhikov, and the English side were sent packing before the group stage despite their favourites tag.
All four Russian sides progressed as runners-up, meaning a likely meeting with a European giant for CSKA and Zenit, and a list of potential opponents from Manchester United to Metalist Kharkiv for Rubin and Lokomotiv. As fate would have it, the Champions League sides were drawn against Real Madrid and Benfica respectively, whilst the Europa League representatives will square up against Olympiakos and Athletic Bilbao when play resumes after the winter break.
For Rubin, there will be a certain sense of optimism with the draw. Olympiakos are a strong side, but Kazan’s representatives have already experienced Greek opposition this year and will consider themselves to be a match for their opponents. Bilbao might prove a step too far for Lokomotiv, but any Marcelo Bielsa team is unpredictable and the Moscow side can take hope from that.
In the Champions League, the Russian clubs had mixed fortunes. For CSKA, a clash with Real Madrid must surely signal the end of their campaign – the Spaniards are one of the favourites for the whole competition, and Jose Mourinho’s men are unlikely to suffer too much even when faced with the Russian weather. Conversely, Benfica were arguably the best draw Zenit could have hoped for, and offer a real chance of progression. Of course, the Portuguese side will fancy their chances, but on the face of it Zenit are Russia’s best chance of making a real run in European competition.
Whether or not any of Russia’s four representatives make it to the next round or not is unimportant in the grand scheme of things – none of them are likely to win a tournament outright – but four Russian clubs competing on the continent in spring is a great step forward for the nation. If this season proves to be a precedent or an anomaly remains to be seen, but there are very few negatives to be taken away from today’s draws.