After a week in which Zenit highlighted their current domination of the Russian game with an emphatic 5-0 win over last year’s runners-up Spartak, Dinamo Moscow once again found themselves on the end of defeat despite the departure of Sergei Silkin, Fabio Capello’s first game in charge of the national team ended in a 1-1 draw against the Ivory Coast and Andrei Arshavin booed after coming on as a substitute, there has been plenty for the footballing press to talk about with regards to the world’s biggest country.
Not quite a million miles from the action in Moscow and St Petersburg however, there are plenty of stories lying around the Russian lower leagues, even if the permeating power of the Premier League can still be detected. On Tuesday, Dagdizel Kaspiysk for the first time this season, going down by a Vadim Balabanov goal to nil in Taganrog, a growing city most famous for being the birthplace of one Anton Chekhov. In itself, the result is far from surprising – Taganrog had won their previous three games and are a solid team in the division. On the balance of things, they were marginal favourites to take the three points.
More intriguing is the position of their opponents, who would have retained their early position at the top of the table with anything other than defeat – instead, FK Astrakhan continue their goal-filled start to the campaign by taking the top spot. Although the season is only six games old, there were few in the build-up to the season predicting anything other than midtable safety at best from Dagdizel, the club from Kaspiysk in Dagestan which almost ceased in exist at the start of last season. In a sudden turn of events, it was this financial plight that has ultimately helped them to emerge as a potential challenger from promotion to the First Division. One of the stated aims of Anzhi’s billionaire backer Suleyman Kerimov is to improve not just the standard of his own team, but the footballing and social infrastructure in the entirety of Dagestan, a bold and ambitious goal admirable in its scope. Plans are underway to allow the star-studded size to relocate from their current Moscow training base to Makhachkala, finally allowing its representatives to live and work in their club’s city, and with manager Guus Hiddink signed up to a directoral role at the conclusion of his managerial tenure, it would appear Mr Kerimov is serious about his intentions.
That desire to see regional improvement provoked an instant reaction from Anzhi upon learning of Dagdizel’s troubles. Faced with the due disaster of financial insolvency and enforced relegation to the amateur leagues, possibly resulting in the closure of the club, Anzhi moved in to negotiate a deal which would see Dagdizel become what is commonly known as a farm club for the Europa League side, providing competitive experience for their promising youngsters and preventing their Dagestani neighbours disappearing. Former Anzhi player and 65-cap Azeri international Emin Agaev was placed in the dugout, and they managed a respectable 7th place in the long transitional season, matching their highest ever position in the division. Whether or not they can improve on that this season and push for promotion remains to be seen, but there is little doubt that the Anzhi link has done wonders for the smaller club.
Currently sitting 2nd in the table, they are well-placed to construct a title challenge, however there are plenty of other sides in the southern section with the potential to do the same and clinch the one promotion spot on offer. FC Astrakhan have netted 16 times in their opening six games and will be looking to maintain their strong early form, whilst Torpedo Armavir will hope to build on an impressive 2011-12 campaign which saw them finish runners-up to champions Rotor Volgograd. With the likes of Mashuk-KMV Pyatigorsk and so-far undefeated Slavyansky also likely to feature at the top end of the table, there will be plenty of competition.
The clear favourites before the start of the season, and most people’s promotion favourites however, are Chermorets Novorossiysk, and with good reason. The club from the Black Sea port city played in Russia’s top flight for the best part of a decade from 1995-2003, with just a single year in the First Division – even reaching the UEFA Cup, where Valencia ended their European dreams. Although that edition of the team suffered a typical Russian fate, losing its professional license after the 2004 First Division season, the club bounced back strongly, immediately winning its way back to the second tier in just three years.
In recent years, they have struggled to find their level, bouncing between the second and third rungs on the ladder. Indeed, it would almost appear that they have an agreement in place with Rotor Volgograd to trade places – in 2010 Chernomorets won the regional league as Rotor fell out of the First Division, and last year it was the Novorossiysk side’s turn to face relegation whilst Rotor won the southern title. This year the Volgograd side look strong enough to survive in the second tier, and Chernomorets, unbeaten in their opening five matches, are favourites to join them there.
Given the ease with which they escaped back in 2010, that tag comes as no surprise. However, in the chaotic world that makes up Russian lower league football, very little can be assumed, and Chernomorets will have to earn their title if they are to return to the First Division. This time round, they will have to deal no only with their familiar rivals in Torpedo, Mashuk and Astrakhan, but a Dagdizel side buoyed by Kerimov’s bail-out and refreshed by Anzhi’s influence. Once again the Premier League battle between past and future plays itself out, and this time in the most unlikely of places – whatever the outcome, the survival of a doomed club and development time for promising youngsters can only be a good thing.