Of course, outside of those teams competing directly for it, no one club can possibly determine the destination of a league championship played out over the course of a 30 game season. However, for those who may wish to play devil’s advocate, the role of unheralded Amkar Perm in this year’s Russian Premier League is already turning into a most interesting one.
Amkar are the eastern-most team currently playing a European top flight, and a handful of Fulham fans may remember their team’s 1-0 defeat in the 2009 Europa League, the Russians unable to overturn a 3-1 defeat at Craven Cottage. However, their appearance in Europe, achieved as a result of a 4th placed finish in the national championship, was a one-off event, the Perm side never reaching continental competition before or afterwards.
Indeed, Amkar’s recent history is one of dignified mediocrity – promotion to the top flight in 2003, just eight years after the founding of the club, has been followed by a decade of midtable finishes. Only twice – the successful 2008 season which also brought a cup final appearance, and the previous year – have Amkar ever won more games than they lost in a season, and yet only on a couple of occasions have they ever been in any real danger of dropping down the ladder.
Judging by their trasfer activity over the course of the summer, this year should be no different. With just two relegation places and the newly-introduced play-off spot to worry, Amkar should remain comfortably clear of the bottom three. However, the new arrivals are by no means enough to spark ambitious predictions and widespread enthusiasm in Perm. With the exception of Igor Picusceac from Krasnodar, none of their five signings arrived from top flight clubs – Vadim Gagloev, a former Russian captain signed from the collapsed Nizhny Novgorod side is perhaps their most valuable addition.
However, last week it was another new arrival, Alexei Rebko, a midfielder who split his playing time between Rostov and relegated Tom Tomsk last season, who made the headlines. Hosting perennial championship contenders CSKA, Amkar stunned the visitors by taking an early lead via the head of former CSKA striker Nikita Burmistrov. However, when Keisuke Honda levelled the scores before a quarter of an hour had been played, everything pointed to the expected away win.
Rebko had other ideas, however. Just five minutes later his low shot beat Igor Akinfeev, and shortly before the interval, with goalkeeper Sergei Narubin having denied CSKA on a number of occasions, the new signing launched a perfect shot into the top corner from 25 yards, and the visitors were rocking. On the stroke of half time CSKA won a penalty which Narubin saved having gambled on a shot down the middle, and then in the second period the visitors imploded.
First it was Sergei Ignashevich, the Russian international centre back seeing red for a professional foul after an hour, and then in the dying moments young playmaker Alan Dzagoev received his marching orders to reduce CSKA to nine men. Despite their numerical disadvantage the Army Men managed to out-shoot and out-pass their opponents, but some fine goalkeeping and strong defending was enough to earn Amkar their first ever competitive win over CSKA.
The three points lost in Perm will have been three points expected by CSKA boss Leonid Slutsky and his men as they face the unenviable task of trying to overhaul Zenit as the best side in Russia. Although cliche dictates that it is the games against the teams around you that determine league position, losing matches which you expect to win comfortably is not an advisable tactic when it comes to winning league titles. With Zenit recording a comfortable 2-0 victory over Dinamo in St Petersburg, CSKA already find themselves three points behind and with two key players facing suspension. Although it is far too early in the season for single games to make too much of an impact on the final standings, CSKA and Zenit meet in Moscow this weekend in what some are labelling an early title decider. If Slutsky’s side were to lose, it would already seem a long way back.
However, Amkar’s role in all of this is not restricted to beating CSKA. The week before, Zenit began their bid to retain the title with a comfortable 2-0 win against the side from Perm. In their next match, Rustem Khuzin’s men return to the road, with a game against another one of the teams expecting to feature at the top of the table in May – Guus Hiddink’s Anzhi side.
Anzhi are by no means the finished article, but with their huge spending power and potentially lethal strike force of Samuel Eto’o and Lacina Traore, they are understandably a club on the rise. At the moment they are not yet expected to win every game in the same manner as Zenit, but if they are to maintain their championship ambitions, Amkar are a side they must be beating at home.
Although far from decisive then, it would appear that, in these opening weeks of the season, Amkar could play a key role in shaping the rest of the campaign at the top of the table. On the one hand, every point earned by Rebko, Gagloev and their colleagues will be a huge bonus for a side expected to continue their tradition of uninspiring league finishes. On the other however, they will be keen to reach the fourth round of fixtures, when newly-promoted Mordovia lie in wait. As much as they will revel in their newly-found status as early season kingmakers, Amkar have pressing matters of their own to deal with.