Across Europe, the winter months tend to be quiet. in a variety of countries around the continent, anywhere between a couple of weeks to a several months is dedicated to hibernation from the football fields covered in snow and ice, with teams instead spending the time wheeling and dealing in the transfer market rather than rehearsing set piece routines on the training ground.
Russia, understandably due to its extreme climate, is one of the countries that enjoys a longer winter break than most, with the Premier League usually being put on hold from late November or early December until mid-March – lower down the leagues, the regional divisions do not resume until April. This year, even December games were derided by some as unreasonable, such is the extent to which temperatures plummet and fans stay away from stadia to maintain their body heat.
That is not to say that the Premier League lies dormant. The majority of its teams return to training in the first or second week or the new year, after the celebration of Orthodox Christmas, but in far warmer climes. Turkey is the traditional favourite for mid-season training camps across Eastern Europe, but in today’s money-driven game there are other options available for the bigger, more global names to take their brand elsewhere. Zenit, for example, are this year using their status as champions to enter the Matchworld Cup in Abu Dhabi, the flagship Russian side representing their nation against Ukrainian giants Shakhtar Donetsk as well as Saudi club Al-Hilal and Egyptian runners-up Zamalek. Zenit will actually be defending their title, which they won in 2012 by defeating Bunyodkor Tashkent before overcoming the Olympic teams of Iraq and Uzbekistan.
There is also the small matter of the transfer window to contend with, with the bigger clubs again being the sides most frequently referenced in the press. For every mention of Rotor Volgograd cancelling the contract of goalkeeper Mikhail Baranovsky, there are three lazily linking Wayne Rooney to Anzhi or seven reporting Spartak’s audacious bid for Igor Denisov. On the whole, however, there has been little business thus far.
What has grabbed the headlines has been a series of extraordinary developments in Krasnodar, and far away from the depth of resources available at Sergei Galitsky’s club. At their more historic city rivals, it was suddenly rumoured that Yuri Krasnozhan, the man who only took over at the club at handful of games into the season, could be removed from his managerial position despite having Kuban sitting in 4th place – a Europa League spot which would also represent the club’s highest national league finishing position since its inception in 1928.
What appeared at first to be little more than journalistic smoke on a slow news day soon turned into a roaring fire, with representatives from the club confirming that shareholders had voted to oust Krasnozhan from his post. One of the club’s directors had initially stuck by his man, but on 8th January it was left to club president Alexander Tkachev – who combines the role with that of governing Krasnodar Krai – to announce his dismissal. Coach Andrei Talalaev has since joined Krasnozhan in the ranks of the unemployed, but the question remains as to why the Spartak Nalchilk legend was sacked in the face of impressive performances on the field.
The official reason given by the club is ‘selection differences,’ which has since been expanded to include disagreements over transfer policy and the future direction of the club. Ivan Peronko, deputy governor of the region, has suggested that Kuban’s 4th place is something of an artificial high and that forthcoming matches against clubs at the top of the table could see the side slip, but remained equally convinced that Kuban’s footballing successes would continue irrespective of Krasnozhan’s departure.
Regardless of the reasoning behind the decision, it is a remarkable fact that Krasnozhan, the man who took Spartak Nalchik from obscurity to the Premier League, has not lasted more than six months in any of his three following jobs. He was dismissed from Lokomotiv Moscow due to gross negligence – unofficial suspicions of match-fixing cast over him by chairwoman Oleg Smorodskaya – abandoned by Anzhi without playing a competitive game after apparently struggling with the egos in the star-studded Dagestani dressing room, and now fired by Kuban with the club flying high in the table. Whether his personal character is particularly abrasive and egotistical, or whether he simply demands control that clubs bigger than Nalchik are unwilling to give him is uncertain, but his achievements cannot be doubted. It is unlikely he will remain out of work for long – Krasnozhan is rumoured to have received offers from the Kazakh national side and domestic club FC Astana.
Despite having two months until the next fixture, Kuban have been swift to act in appointing their new manager, a move which carries the unusual combination of being understandable from both footballing and financial viewpoints. Leonid Kuchuk arrives cheaply after recently leaving Ukrainian side Arsenal Kyiv in the middle of the pack, having led them to an impressive 5th placed finish last season. With his new charges will know little about the man from Minsk, he is no stranger to the Russian game, having managed Salyut Belgorod briefly in 2010, and has an impressive record – six consecutive Moldovan titles with national giants Sheriff Tiraspol earning him his managerial spurs. Despite walking away from Arsenal just a week ago, his former chairman Vadim Rabinovich still describes Kuchuk in glowing terms, rating him as ‘one of the best coaches in the post-Soviet region.’ The man himself has also made all the right noises, discounting reckless ambition of somehow catching the leading troika of CSKA, Anzhi and Zenit whilst also insisting that he knows his team, intends to play attacking football, and is by no means around just to collect his wages.
Whilst his record at Arsenal and success at Sheriff are a good start to any manager’s CV, his sole season in the Russian game – relegation from the First Division with admittedly limited resources – is enough to cast doubts over what would otherwise be a sensible appointment borne out of an illogical firing. What is certain is that Kuban will be Kuchuk’s biggest job to date, and one with ever-increasing expectations thanks to the groundwork laid by Krasnozhan and Dan Petrescu before him. With strong results comes interest from elsewhere – goalkeeper Alexander Belenov has been linked with a move to Zenit – and with supporters still demanding answers over Krasnozhan’s sacking, he faces an immediate battle to win the hearts and minds of fans and players alike. Should he succeed, the debacle will be swept under the Kuban carpet. If he fails, the club directors will have a lot to answer for.