The Early Entertainers

Neftekhimik have enjoyed a goal-filled start to the new season.

The Russian Premier League season may be just a single game old – champions Zenit already sitting proudly atop the table after being the only team to win their opening fixture by more than a single goal, defeating Amkar Perm 2-0 in St Petersburg – there has already been plenty of football to follow in the lower reaches of the Russian game. The First Division, the second tier of the country’s league system and the last level at which the sport is wholly national in scope, is gearing up for its fourth round of fixtures this coming week, and already the entertainment value has increased over last year’s efforts.

In the lengthy 2011-12 campaign, it was not unusual to be presented with a raft of 0-0 and 1-0 scorelines at the end of each matchday, with teams seemingly lacking the quality to score enough goals to kill off matches they had dominated, and in some cases even get on the scoreboard at all. This time round, the First Division has undergone a forced shake-up as a result of last-minute withdrawals, and the changes seem to have helped to create a more open, goal-friendly league with more attacking play.

The reason for this is relatively simple – in previous years, the First Division has been the largest of Russia’s leagues, consisting of huge numbers of games. Combined with a lengthy break over the harsh winter months, this resulted in most teams playing twice a week for large stretches of the year. With the ridiculous amount of travel involved in traversing a country of Russia’s size, this necessarily cut back on training time, team cohesion, and the ability to play football to a high standard. This year however, there are just 17 sides taking part in Russia’s second tier, reducing the number of relegation places in the league from five to a mere two. With less risk of failure, teams are far more inclined to aim for three points rather than preserving a single one.

The reasons for the sudden withdrawals of FC Nizhny Novgorod, Torpedo Vladimir and Dinamo Bryansk of course raise their own questions about the state of the Russian game, one which this blog has often discussed, especially in the wake of Zhemchuzhina Sochi’s similar withdrawal midway through last season. However, with no time to replace them in the league, the Russian Football Union had no option but to go ahead with a reduced competition, and with almost half of the 17 competing sides new to the league as a result of either promotion from the regional tiers or, in the case of Tom Tomsk and Spartak Nalchik, relegation from the top flight. The result so far has been a league in which anyone seems capable of beating anyone on their day, especially in a scenario in which scouting reports from last season are of limited use due to high player turnover. After three rounds of fixtures, it is last year’s Second Division South champions Rotor Volgograd who top the table unbeaten, with Igor Kolyvanov’s newly-promoted FC Ufa chasing them in 3rd. More established names such as Khimki and Torpedo Moscow have struggled and find themselves with just a single point – with fewer games to reverse their fortunes, it will not be long before they begin to look over their shoulders at the relegation trapdoor.

It would seem then, that the newer teams are looking to take advantage of the unusual situation, and at this early stage are doing a good job of matching and beating the teams around them who have enjoyed long periods in the division. On top, Rotor have ground out two 1-0 wins and picked up a solid 1-1 draw in Novosibirsk, but lower down the table the goals have been flying in, with another regional championship-winning side, Neftekhimik Nizhnekamsk, chalking up five in both the for and against column after just three matches. Their season so far has been one of improvement – a 3-1 defeat by Metallurg Novokuznetsk, another newcomer to the division, was followed by a draw at home with SKA-Energia Khabarovsk, the only Far Eastern representative in the top two divisions after Luch-Energia Vladivostok were relegated late year. Their third game could yet prove a watershed moment in their campaign, travelling to recently relegated Spartak Nalchik and coming away with a comprehensive 3-1 win of their own, inspired by two goals from on-loan Rubin striker Igor Portnyagin. With the young forward having spent much of the previous campaign loaned out to Spartak, there will no doubt have been a great deal of personal satisfaction involved as his brace defeated his former club.

Of course, with Neftekhimik’s four points currently putting them firmly in the middle of the table and Rotor’s single-goal victories placing them on top, there is certainly something to be said for a more solid defensive approach in the long run. The league is yet young, and it is unlikely that the current trend for higher scoring games will continue throughout the rest of the season, but for now it is certainly providing a more exciting spectacle for the people of Nizhnekamsk, Belgorod and Kaliningrad to name but three. The standard may not be the highest, the stadiums may sit half empty, but as long as there as goals going in, there will always be something of interest. Long may it continue.

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