Survival. For a newly-promoted team in almost any league, barring extreme levels of financial support or other off-field reasons, survival is the ultimate goal of the first season up. Survival is the bare minimum, the standard by which every other achievement is measured, and in the vast majority of cases this is for good reason. English fans have been shocked this season by the success of all three promoted teams in their survival bids, such is the rarity with which universal success in achieved.
In the Russian top flight, the three promoted sides – FC Krasnodar an anomalous third after the demise of Saturn Ramenskoye and the need to fill Premier League places – took on different roles over the course of the season, and the success of each is easily judged as a result. What emerges is a pattern of sides which have used their promotion to push on, and others which have instead seen something of a regression back to the standards of the second tier.
Kuban were by far the most successful of the three, finishing as they did comfortably clear of relegation. Indeed, had the league season finished after its usual 30 matches, Dan Petrescu’s men would have found themselves agonisingly short of European qualification, ahead of two-time league champions Rubin Kazan and the emerging force of an Anzhi team backed to the hilt by Suleyman Kerimov and his seemingly endless fortune. However, as the old adage so wisely hints at, the 2011-12 Russian Premier League season was not a sprint, or in this case even a marathon, but instead an ironman endurance event as the games just kept coming. Another series of games against the top sides in the league took its toll and Kuban eventually slipped to 8th place, but for a side promoted on the back of years spent bouncing between the divisions, their achievements are impressive indeed.
All the more so perhaps, given the circumstances surrounding the promotion of city rivals FC Krasnodar. Another side backed by a wealthy owner in Sergei Galitsky, they took full advantage of their second indirect promotion in three years, and despite their relative lack of preparation time for the season ahead, the sheer quantity of resources available to them made the newer club many people’s favourites to come out on top of the duel between the two Krasnodar clubs. Whilst Pretrescu’s men are to commended for staying one step ahead of their rivals, the latter’s own record is not to be belittled. Benefiting from a troubling financial situation in the lower reaches of the Premier League, Krasnodar soon battled themselves into a position far clear of any relegation trouble, and after all 44 games were the clear winners of the bottom half, actually ending up with the same amount of points as Kuban, albeit with 14 games against much weaker opposition. Their backing makes this season unlikely to be a one-off, and it looks probable that Krasnodar will continue to provide an alternative to the many Moscow derbies for some time to come.
At the other end of the spectrum were Volga Nizhny Novgorod, who were few people’s picks to win promotion form the First Division, and even fewer predicted their survival in the top flight. By the break they looked to have proven those people wrong, establishing themselves in 12th place and just outside of the battle to avoid the drop. However, the additional commitments associated with Premier League football began to exert their influence on the club’s finances, and a number of players were forced to leave during the transfer window in a desperate effort to balance the books. Their form told the story – just 13 points after the split was not good enough, and slowly but surely they slipped back into the danger zone, being saved only by time running out on Tom Tomsk’s dubious resurgence and a simple lack of quality in the Spartak Nalchik squad.
After the biggest footballing event in their city’s history, their two-legged play-off against city rivals FC Nizhny Novgorod ended with a narrow 2-1 aggregate win for the Premier League club, and so they live to fight another day and reap the questionable rewards of top flight football for another season. However, whilst on the surface this will be viewed by the club as a success – they were, after all, predicted to finish dead last by many onlookers – Volga now run the risk of simply delaying the inevitable, basking in the glory of play-off success instead of addressing the problems which took them there in the first place.
How far they can be addressed of course depends heavily on the financial situation, but they would do well to avoid falling into the same trap as fellow play-off side Rostov, who slipped from 10th before the split to 15th after it and survived only as Shinnik Yaroslavl, their First Division opponents, failed to perform on the big occasion. Since the fall of the Soviet Union, Rostov have only spent two years out the top flight, and are regarded very much as midtable makeweights who are safe, yet unlikely to make an impact at the top table. This time round, they actually possessed the second best attack of any side in the bottom half, but at the back they remained leaky, throwing away leads and conceding late to let hard-earned points slip away.
For Volga, improving their defence is imperative – they lost 27 of their 44 matches, more than any other Premier League club – but it is the complacency which comes with being seen as part of the elite club and one of the established sides which is perhaps even more dangerous. It is a problem which can’t be solved with money, but requires both ambition and vigilance across the board. Whether Volga possess those qualities remains to be seen.