Across Europe, league seasons are beginning to draw to a close. In England, the two Manchester clubs do battle for the title on the final day, and there are still European dreams and survival hopes on the line. In Italy, Juventus have the chance to complete a famous unbeaten season to round off their Scudetto-winning season, whilst in Spain and Germany, Real Madrid and Borussia Dortmund can once again celebrate wresting the title from their respective rivals.
In Russia, the Premier League title race fizzled out after the winter break, Zenit romping to a second successive championship and taking a double-digit points advantage into the final game of the season. It is long been decided that Tom Tomsk and Spartak Nalchik are destined for the drop, and newly promoted Volga will be one of two sides to face the relegation play-off. The identity of the other is not yet known, but aside from next year’s Champions League participants, mcuh of the outcome is already known.
In the First Division’s Promotion Group, there is still much riding on tomorrow’s final round of fixtures. The bottom half of the league may have three games left to play, and with half of those sides still mathematically involved in the relegation scrap there is plenty of scope for shock, but Saturday is all-or-nothing for two teams who will both believe that they deserve a place in the top flight after a long season spent battling inferior opposition. Mordovia Saransk sealed the First Division title with their 2-0 home win over Shinnik on Tuesday, a brace from the league’s top scorer Ruslan Mukhametshin taking his tally past 30 goals for the campaign and sending the well-funded provincial club into the top flight for the first time in their history, and the battle to join them there will be conducted between one side similar in stature, and another looking to take their rightful place back among Russia’s elite.
In the red corner, with a two point lead in the standings and a place in the top flight seen as something of a divine right after their shock title win in 1995, Alania Vladikvkaz enter the day holding most of the cards in the promotion race. With title-winning manager Valeri Gazzaev back at the club as President and son Valeri in the manager’s dugout, the North Ossetian side have underperformed at times this year, leading to not-unfounded accusations of nepotism from some quarters, but with one game to go they have every chance of returning to the top flight. They do however face a tricky tie away at Ural Ekaterinburg, a side who will be disappointed with their own finish in either 5th or 6th place. Although Ural have won just three of their last ten home league games, the more worrying statistic from Alania’s point of view is that they have lost only three of their last 20 in Ekaterinburg – an Alania side which has relied on a solid defence rather than a fluid attack, scoring just eight more goals than 12th place Torpedo Vladimir, may well struggle against the division’s draw specialists.
With a two point lead and a six goal advantage over Alania, in most leagues a draw for the North Caucasians would be sufficient. However, in Russia the first tiebreaker is games won, and this poses a significant problem. Looming in the rear view mirror are FC Nizhny Novgorod, with 29 wins to Alania’s 28 and a theoretically easier game to play. Whilst they too face an away day in the final round of the season, Nizhny Novgorod travel to Torpedo Moscow, who snuck into the top half before the split and have not won a single one of their last 16 games home or away. With nothing on the line for the hosts and so much at stake for the visitors, the promotion battlers go into the game as huge favourites to pile the pressure on Alania and leave the pre-season title favourites needing a win to secure their Premier League berth for next season.
Nizhny Novgorod have been in a similar situation before, and it is a remarkable achievement for a club which just five years ago was competing in Russia’s amateur competitions. A 3rd place finish was enough to earn promotion to the regional Second Division, and they matched that finish in their debut season, applying for and achieving promotion after a number 0f better-placed teams opted to turn down a First Division spot on financial grounds. Interestingly enough, the team that beat them to the title that season were city rivals Volga, whose own meteoric rise saw them reach the Premier League last season a single position above Nizhny Novgorod.
This season then, presents the perfect opportunity for the city’s perceived ‘second club’ to overtake their rivals, who have done well to force themselves into a play-off position but are favourites for the drop. If Volga can pull together to retain their Premier League status, Nizhny Novgorod are able to go up through the play-offs or automatically, and both teams are able to overcome their precarious financial situations and co-exist in the top flight, the city will become only the third after Moscow and Krasnodar to host a top flight footballing derby. If the latter is an unlikely second city, Nizhny Novgorod is an even less probable third, and yet the notion of two home teams doing battle with Russia’s finest is one which is becoming increasingly real for the city’s expectant inhabitants.