It has been said before, and it will be said again, but the winter is a horrendous time to follow Russian football. Since early December, everyone from the casual observer to the hardcore ‘ultra’ is frustrated by the long, but entirely sensible hibernation period, a break in the domestic calender which eliminates play in the harshest conditions. Temperatures may still be below zero in the weeks immediately before and after the break – there was much controversy this year over the decision to play into December – but for everyone, the need for the break is clear.
Of course, until very recently the elongated pause used to constitute the Russian off-season, with clubs taking the time out to evaluate the season just completed and recharge their batteries before returning for a new campaign, re-energised and refocused. However, with the World Cup bid and the desire to be seen as a more modern league, last season became a transitional year, an 18-month league season designed to match the Russian system with its European counterparts.
For the most part, the difference is minimal. The break is of roughly the same length, and the teams’ routine during the holiday period is very similar – a few days ff before a training camp in warmer climes such as Turkey or the Middle East, followed by another short break and a second, sometimes third period overseas, many of the larger camps this year opting for Spain and Italy as part of their fitness programs. The transfer window remains the same length, almost a whole month longer than many European leagues, and so the intense speculation drags on until February fades away.
The one thing which remains unchanged is the fans’ desire to see their team get on with things again, and after a night of Europa League action which failed to generate a single Russian goal across three ties, the feeling is universal. Matchday 20 is therefore a symbolic as well as practical restart, and the matches pulled out by the fixture computer have generated some interesting clashes.
Friday 8th March
Volga Nizhny Novgorod (13th) vs Kuban Krasnodar (4th)
Volga, despite their lowly status, are doing well this season. A merger with former rivals FC Nizhny Novgorod, their beaten play-off opponents last year, has strengthened their squad somewhat, whilst the winter acquisition of former ‘one to watch’ Romeo Castelen raised eyebrows across Europe when announced. Nevertheless, on Friday they come up against the surprise package of the season so far, and will struggle. Kuban, despite losing manager Dan Petrescu to Dinamo early on, have surged up the table under Yuri Krasnozhan and sit in contention for Europe, leading a group of teams with the same goal. The joker is the pack is obvious – Krasnozhan too has left in somewhat acrimonious circumstances, so Leonid Kuchuk will have to convince the fans and players that he can continue his predecessors’ work. A win here would be a good start.
FC Krasnodar (10th) vs Amkar Perm (12th)
Krasnodar are a club indicative of the movement of power away from the traditional elites in Russia, the wealthy upstarts cementing their Premier League place well with a season that could yet provide European football – they sit just four points behind Terek in the final spot, although the loss of Yura Movsisyan to Spartak will be a big one. Amkar on the other hand look destined for another middle-of-the-road campaign as they seek to keep their head clear of the relegation waters. They too have lost a key player to a Moscow club in Pavel Ignatevich’s move to Dinamo, but their year has been more defined by a match-fixing scandal than any on-field action. This does not promise thrills.
Saturday 9th March
Dinamo Moscow (9th) vs Lokomotiv Moscow (8th)
There’s almost always a Moscow derby going on somewhere, so to have one in the return week is little surprise. This particular fixture combines two of the league’s biggest managerial stories so far – on the one hand we have Dinamo, who, having sacked Sergei Silkin for a miserable start to the campaign, have flown up the table and now have a real chance of Europe under Dan Petrescu and his brand of attacking football. On the other, Lokomotiv, a side with a big name at the helm in Slaven Bilic, but who have been unable to find the consistency that has so long eluded them. This may appear to be a midtable scrap, but both teams need a good run if they are to stay in the chasing pack.
Krylya Sovetov Samara (14th) vs CSKA Moscow (1st)
So far, it’s been a season like any other for the Wings – poor in attack and lax in defence, the lower midtable stalwarts currently occupy the play-off spot, and new manager Gadzhi Gadzhiev faces a battle to retain their top flight status. CSKA, on the other hand, have been impressive. That is not to say they haven’t struggled – Seydou Doumbia’s absence making goals hard to come by at times – but with their intimidating attack in full flow they have got over a disappointing European exit to AIK and moved to the top of the title tree. With Vagner Love back in CSKA colours they will be a marked team, but one capable of getting off to a good start.
Alania Vladikavkaz (15th) vs FC Rostov (11th)
Rostov, now relieved of David Bentley’s services after the former England international’s loan expired, are one of the league’s lesser lights, facing another battle to survive but unlikely to fall too much further. Alania, on the other hand, are a big club in a bad way, and legendary mustachioed manager Valeri Gazzaev seems almost as concerned with creating the Russo-Ukrainian united championship than managing his local side. In perhaps the biggest surprise of the off-season, they captured former Real Madrid star Royston Drenthe – quite what he’ll make of the North Caucasus remains to be seen.
Sunday 10th March
Spartak Moscow (6th) vs Terek Grozny (5th)
At one point this season, Terek actually topped the Premier League table. Under the guidance of ex-Spartak boss Stanislav Cherchesov, they have transformed from the farcical plaything of Chechen president Ramzan Kadyrov into a real football team, hard to break down, compact, and dangerous on the break. They may have faded slightly, but 5th is a remarkable position for them to hold. Conversely, Spartak have been a soap opera this season – starting out by hammering Dinamo before throwing away point after point, resulting in Valeri Karpin dismissing Unai Emery, the manager he had appointed just six months previous, and re-taking over in the dugout he left only at the end of last season after being on the other end of a thrashing in the return fixture. Their passionate and vocal fanbase has not had much to cheer this season, but a Europa League spot would be some consolation.
Rubin Kazan (7th) vs Zenit St Petersburg (3rd)
Rubin are a team almost too stuck in their ways to change, the all-seeing eye of Kurban Berdyev watching his two-time champions withdraw into their defensive shell and drop down the table into European outsiders. Still going strong in the Europa League but having lost eight of their 19 game so far, it’s up front that they need to start performing. Opponents Zenit have had a topsy-turvy season already, miserable away days in the Champions League followed by Europa success over Liverpool, whilst off the field player revolts over wages and racially-prejudiced fan statements have done little to attract fans to the champions. Five points off CSKA’s pace at the minute, they need a win here to stay in touch and fight for three in a row.
Mordovia Saransk (16th) vs Anzhi Makhachkala (2nd)
Mordovia were not ready for the Premier League, and just two wins so far is a clear sign of that. Out went the man who got them here, Fedor Shcherbachenko, and in comes Romanian Dorinel Munteanu to try and salvage something from the wreckage. As a competitive debut, he could have had it a lot easier than Anzhi, the new money currently chasing success on three fronts. €35m signing Willian will get his first taste of Premier League action, and Mordovia could be in for a long day. Anzhi have little choice but to win, and plenty of chances.
With the coming of Spring comes the return of the beautiful game, and whilst frozen urban Russia may not be the most picturesque of settings for top flight football, their is enough going on on the field to entertain those watching on. The first day back is always an important one, and with the winter holidays well and truly over, the results that come through could have a dramatic effect on the standings at the end of the season.