Last weekend, the Russian Premier League returned with a bang, tepid victories for relegation battling sides cancelled out by smoke-based interruptions during a match between Rubin and Spartak, and a 2-2 draw involving the top two of CSKA and Zenit which was a fantastic advert for the Russian game. Guus Hiddink secured a crucial away win at Dinamo in his first game as Anzhi boss, and the fight at both ends of the table is that little bit clearer. In short, everything that a comeback weekend should be.
This week is the turn of the First Division, Russia’s second tier which is also undergoing changes forced as result of the transitional season. From this season there will be an added incentive at the top of the table with the introduction of a promotion/relegation play-off against Premier League strugglers, but at the bottom very little has changed. Zhemchuzhina’s withdrawal exactly halfway through the regular season interfered with the scheduling only in that one team each matchday was unoccupied, with a 3-0 win given to every team in the league for the return leg. With the Sochi side gaining no points, it was therefore inevitable that they would finish at the foot of the table.
However, the margin was by no means as large as the authorities had expected. When Zhemchuzhina dropped out in mid July, they had collected 26 points from their 19 games, comfortably in midtable and looking like legitimate challengers for the top eight and an outside chance at promotion. However, no points from 19 matches should have seen them drop down the league like a stone – in fact, they ended up just four points adrift at the bottom, their points tally in relation to their rivals looking less like a financial withdrawal than a particularly poor season.
Fakel Voronezh are the team who currently occupy Zhemchuzina’s position, Sochi’s representatives having been simply removed from the league table after the split. From their 38 games they gathered a paltry 30 points, and for the vast majority of the season did not look like reaching even Zhemchuzhina’s lowly tally – eight points from their final four regular season matches, including an unlikely win at promotion-chasing Sibir, was just enough to see them avoid the ignominy of finishing below a team which had played just half a season.
Fakel’s suffering is perhaps the antidote to the story of FC Krasnodar, one half of the country’s only top flight derby outside of Moscow, and occupants of 9th position in the table following an incredible debut season. The club was founded only in 2008, promoted from the Second Division at the first attempt when other clubs failed to gain First Division licenses, and after two seasons in the second tier were chosen to fill the gap in the Premier League left by the the liquidated Saturn Ramenskoye. Whilst infrastructure and the decisions of other clubs were officially the given reasons for Krasnodar’s selection, the personal fortune and heavy investment of owner Sergei Galitsky – billionaire owner of the Magnit supermarket chain – have undoubtedly been the key factors in their rapid rise.
Whilst Krasnodar are a young team rife with investment, Fakel can at least claim historical relevance. Under one name or another, a side from Voronezh took part in Soviet championships as early as 1954, and in 1961 won promotion to the top flight of the USSR’s league system. Relegation immediately followed, but Voronezh did not fade away and eventually repeated the trick in 1985, again beig relegated but retaining a high enough league standing to be included in the inaugural Russian Top League in 1992, 1997, 2001 and 2002. Since then, they have fluctuated constantly between the First and Second divisions, a brief period without a professional license overcome with a strong Second Division placement in 2010.
In a usual season, that 4th place in a league in which promotion is allocated only to the champion would be respectable but insufficient, the team expected the strengthen over the off-season and launch a further attempt the following year. However, with Krasnodar taking Saturn’s place in the Premier League, an opening appeared in the second tier which Fakel applied for and were duly awarded, a decision their fans were understandably delighted with.
Yet as Galitsky’s side have flourished in their new environment, so have Fakel failed to keep pace with their more talented opponents. They have struggled most obviously up front – 46 goals conceded is only two more than 2nd place Mordovia, however they have netted just 26 times, just four more than Zhemchuzhina managed in half as many matches, and at one point went six matches without scoring. They have four top scorers tied on a mere three goals apiece, and clearly lack the firepower to compete in the national leagues.
Eight points adrift at the foot of a league in which the bottom four will all be relegated back to the regional tiers, and with 11 points to make up in just 11 games, it will take nothing short of a miracle to keep Fakel in the First Division. Instead, manager Konstantin Sarsania and his team will prepare for another assault on the Second Division – the same league they should be attempting to break out of this season. Whilst a year at a higher level should provide valuable experience for the future, there is no telling how much damage a campaign as miserable as their current season will do to a squad simply unprepared for First Division football. For now, Fakel serve as a powerful example that whilst the financial failures of some clubs create opportunities for others, not every side is able to take it – Krasnodar are to remain the exception, rather than the rule.