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Crossing The Lower League Line

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Salyut Stadium will be hosting a higher class of opponent next season.

For the overwhelming majority of Russian football fans, the longest season ever to have taken place within its borders is finally over. Zenit are champions once more, Luciano Spalletti’s men pulling away from the pack and clinching the title emphatically. Spartak will join them in the Champions League after a late surge saw them past CSKA, whilst at the foot of the table it’s Rostov and Volga who will face the dreaded play-off, with Tom and Spartak Nalchik already confirming their places in the second tier for next season. In the First Division, Alania Vladikavkaz regain their place in the Premier League along with new champions Mordovia Saransk, who will make their top flight debut in 2012-13.

However, there remain a few issues to be resolved before the entirety of the Russian footballing world can unite behind Dick Advocaat’s squad for Euro 2012, which sees the return of Sporting Lisbon winger Marat Izmailov and the provisional inclusion of Lokomotiv midfielder Magomed Ozdoev as it’s major talking points. Not only are the relegation play-offs to be concluded with regards to the Premier League, the First Division is yet to bring it’s own Relegation Group to a close, and in three of the country’s five Second Division regions, the fight is still on to put a foot on the next rung of the footballing ladder.

It is the regions geographically most central and extreme which have already decided their champions, with the identities of their newest First Division representatives already known. In the Central zone, incorporating everything from the historic battlefields of Kursk to the Volga riverside city of Saratov, it is Salyut Belgorod who have asserted their dominance over this long campaign. With three games left to go of their season they hold an unassailable ten point lead over nearest rivals Avangard Kursk, and that is despite picking up just four points from their last three games. Salyut were of course one of the five teams relegated from the second tier last season, and so it is to the management’s great credit that the squad have been able to bounce back so emphatically. Just three defeats in their opening 20 games set them in good stead for a promotion challenge, and with the side impressive in both attack and defence, racking up a goal difference of 45, it is little surprise to see them return to the next level.

In the East, the margin of victory is even more emphatic for Metallurg-Kuzbass Novokuznetsk, who were relegated back to regional level at the end of the 2008 season and have since struggled to assert themselves in a league which they have traditionally dominated – they actually won the division four times between 1998 and 2002, only to be denied promotion by the license system and monetary constraints. This time however, they wasted no time in hitting the top of the table, and with nearest challengers Mostovik-Primorye Ussuriysk a massive 17 points behind with just four rounds to play, the newly-crowned champions have every right to fancy their chances when it comes to maintaining second tier status next year.

Moving south, and the title is moving ever closer for Rotor Volgograd, the former giants who have suffered gross mismanagement and managerial chaos on the painful slide to the Second Division. Rotor are another side who reached the First Division recently, failing to escape relegation last season, but with a seven point lead over stuttering Torpedo Armavir, victory at home against relegation-threatened Biolog Novokubansk will secure the championship and an immediate return to the second tier. For a club of Rotor’s size it is imperative that there at no last-minute slip-ups – the fans simply will not allow it, the city is in need of a strong sports club, and with the World Cup arriving in the city in 2018, anything other than a competitive side will see stadium renovation become nothing but a white elephant.

Another previously-featured team are also in contention for promotion, but Andrei Kanchelskis’ FC Ufa will have to rely on mistakes from their rivals if they are to claim an unlikely place in the First Division. Their impressive season may have seen a few more dropped points in recent weeks, but Neftekhimik Nizhnekamsk lead the way in the race to escape the Volga-Ural zone, holding a five point lead over the legendary winger’s side with just four games to play. Both sides have two home and two away games remaining, and with the points margin at more than a single match, it is difficult to see how Ufa can deny Rubin Kazan’s feeder club their first First Division appearance since 2004, and it will not be long before Kanchelskis and his men turn their thoughts to next season.

Finally we arrive in the Western region, and the most hotly-contested title race in Russian football. With just four games left to play, no fewer than six teams can mathematically be promoted as champions, although it is the current top three who look the most likely to climb the ladder – Textilschik Ivanovo, Spartak Kostroma and Petrotrest are currently separated by a mere three points, which could next reduced further still should the latter two win their games in hand on the Ivanovo club.

For a time Spartak looked like hot favourites, holding a potential six point cushion over the winter break, but they failed to win any of their first four games back in, only collecting three points from a home tie against one of the league’s whipping boys in Znamya Truda Orekhovo-Zuyevo. Should Petrotrest, the reformed Dinamo St Petersburg, win away at Saturn, they will take top spot and become the latest favourite to bounce back into the First Division, but even at this late stage nothing is certain. Textilschik could fade due to having to play their final two games away from home, but both Spartak and Petrotrest will benefit from the opposite, as well as run-ins which pit them against no side currently sitting in the top half of the table. With a Kostroma derby against Dinamo also scheduled for Spartak’s final away game of the season, it could well be that the championship is not decided until 3rd June, less than a week before Russia’s opening game of Euro 2012 and a whole month after Zenit were confirmed as national champions. Nothing is decided yet.

The sheer competitiveness of the Second Division this season has once again served to highlight the wealth of riches to be found in the Russian game – whilst the quality may not be the highest, and in the lower reaches barely justifying the term, the will to win and desire to play are as strong as anywhere else in the country. There is no team currently in a promotion position who would look out of p;lace in the league above, and whilst some will undoubtedly be relegated, that these regional tiers are strengthening can only be a positive sign for years to come.

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