Image from rubinkazan.ru

The Curtain Rises

Image from rubinkazan.ru
Old adversaries Rubin and Zenit will lock horns once again in the Super Cup.

It only seems like five minutes since the curtain came down on the longest single season in Russian footballing history. Zenit raced to a second consecutive championship victory, whilst the other end of the table saw Tom Tomsk finally relegated along with Spartak Nalchik, the Siberian finding investment too late to save their sorry season. Then came the European Championships and a moment of unparalleled hope for Russia and her fans – a 4-1 win over the Czech Republic on opening night bringing memories of 2008 flooding back, and cementing Alan Dzagoev as ‘one to watch’ in the preview pages of every newspaper covering the vent. The hope was short-lived, Dick Advocaat’s men picking up just a single point against Poland and crashing out at the hands of Greece, and once again it would be Spain who triumphed on the international stage.

Now, less than two weeks on from Spain’s perfect performance in the final, the Russian Premier League is almost ready to start once more. The First Division has already got underway, Ural Ekaterinburg the early leaders after smashing newly-promoted Petrotrest 4-0 in their opening fixture, and we are just one week away from the big kick-off in the top flight. As the final preparations get well underway, this weekend will see the curtain re-raised in a manner now increasingly common across the footballing world – the annual Super Cup.

Some treat the clash of league champions and cup winners as nothing more than a glorified friendly, an occasion for the fans to enjoy a high-tempo exhibition match between two sides likely to be fighting for the title at the end of the season. Others treat it more seriously, using the Super Cup as a yardstick to measure the two clubs against one another, and judging whether or not there is any chance of the league winners being overhauled over the coming months. In Russia, the Super Cup has increasingly become an occasion for the fans, with the event being moved away from its traditional Moscow home – this year’s edition will take place in the unlikely Volga surroundings of Samara – but even so there is plenty for the two managers to consider as they prepare their teams for the season-starting show.

The 2012 Russian Super Cup will of course feature Zenit St Petersburg and Rubin Kazan, the two sides earning their places by virtue of their league and cup triumphs respectively. Between them, the two clubs who will take to the field at Dinamo have won the last five Premier League titles – Rubin in 2008 and 2009, with Zenit claiming the other three – and the sides represent very contrasting styles in the way they are set up to play.

Luciano Spalletti, who many expected to leave his post to take up the vacant post with Russia, is a firm believer in a strong offence. In their three title-winning seasons they have finished as the league’s top scorers, and even in 2008, when they followed their maiden championship with a disappointing 5th place finish, they outscored every team in the division. Whilst their strong defence is undoubtedly a key factor in their success, it is in goals that Zenit find themselves superior to their rivals, and Spalletti is keen to avoiding resting on his laurels. The arrivals of Montenegro youth international Luka Djordjevic from Mogren and Georgian playmaker Levan Kenia from Schalke are testament to Zenit’s ambition, and with rumours linking the likes of Lokomotiv’s Denis Glushakov to the club along with Juventus winger Simone Pepe and Genoa’s Swedish defender Andreas Granqvist, it is clear that Spalletti will not be content to hold what he has.

Rubin, on the other hand, have developed something of a reputation for negative football, taking the miserly defence which won them the title in two successive years and building too heavily upon it, sacrificing attacking potency for clean sheets. It is worth noting that some of Kurban Berdyev’s signings have not played out as expected – Obafemi Martins has failed to perform in Kazan, whilst club record signing Carlos Eduardo managing just six appearances in two years thanks to a combination of injuries and personal problems keeping him off the field. Nevertheless, Rubin are a club which many see as being locked into a decline – their attacking play fails to create chances for misfiring strikers, whilst at the back their defensive solidity is drawing attention from elsewhere, with the likes of Cristian Ansaldi, Salvatore Bocchetti and Cesar Navas regularly linked with moves away from the club.

For both teams then, the Super Cup could play an important role for the upcoming campaign. For Zenit, it offers an opportunity to lay down a marker, for the much-maligned Alexander Kerzhakov to shrug off his summer critics and get back amongst the goals, and for the champions to prove to their watching rivals that they do not intend to relinquish the grip which they have held on the league for the past two seasons. For Rubin and Kurban Berdyev, victory in Samara would provide a glimmer of hope for those fans who have seen their side slide slowly down the table since  2009. A win against the champions, and a piece of silverware for the trophy cabinet would go a long way to boosting morale ahead of the new campaign.

Of course, there is only so much you can read into a Super Cup of any description, and Russia’s is no different – the infinitely more important matter of the league itself begins in a week’s time. However, with two of Russia’s best teams on display, what the Super Cup does offer is one more potentially high quality game to add the season. That alone cannot be underestimated.

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