Last weekend in the Russian Premier League, eight matches produced a thoroughly disappointing six goals. With less than a goal per team on average – nine of the sides failed to trouble the scoreboard, resulting in three goalless draws – there was some delight to be found in Rubin’s performance against Chelsea in the Europa League, a 3-2 win in a deserted Luzhniki not quite enough to overturn their defeat at Stamford Bridge, with Fernando Torres capitalising on some less than perfect goalkeeping from Sergei Ryzhikov to boost his season’s goal tally.
In short, it has not been the best of times for the Russian game. CSKA seem to be the only one of the title-chasing clubs who seem capable of stringing wins together, leaving Zenit – who relied on a dubious Hulk penalty to see off Krylya Sovetov – and an Anzhi side without a win in four games despite facing the bottom two in that time, trailing in their wake. Leonid Slutsky’s side lead the defending champions by eight points with just seven games to go, whilst Anzhi are a huge 12 points off the pace and now face a battle with the chasing pack just to hold on to 3rd. At the bottom, Alania look dead and buried, whilst the rest are unable to score – less than thrilling viewing at the moment.
It is at times like this, therefore, that the Russianist should not afraid to glance lower down the leagues for their entertainment. In the First Division, the table sits remarkably parallel – Tom Tomsk and Ural Ekaterinburg are well clear at the top and look certain to claim automatic promotion, however in the fight for the play-offs there are no fewer than seven sides within striking distance – clubs are varied as recently relegated Spartak Nalchik and Sibir Novosibirsk to young upstarts Ufa. At the bottom, things are less clear – Volgar Astrakhan look to be on the way down, below a group of provincial sides from the central region all fighting to keep their heads above the water.
However, poor weather conditions have not been conducive to flowing, attacking football, and while the goals have continued to go in, it has been the gap in quality between teams rather than the the quality of the play which has been the cause. Ural have resorted to playing indoors, Petrotrest have announced that they will once again play under the Dinamo moniker next season – presumably resulting in the now-amateur Dinamo St Petersburg outfit being forced into a name change – but there seems little happening outside of a few provincial sides changing places on a weekly basis.
Even so, the Russian fan has no reason to despair. After a wait of no less than five whole months for the harsh winter weather to subside, the Second Division resumed this week to the delight of those clubs still yearning for national competition. Of course, owing to poor facilities in many of the cities involved, not every side is yet able to host professional football, and so only the teams in the south of the country have in fact restarted their league campaign.
In the southern division there are, for the lower reaches of the Russian league system, some relatively big hitters. Chernomorets Novorossiysk were top flight regulars in the latter half of the 1990s, Dagdizel Kaspiysk, now based in Derbent, are the farm club of Anzhi, and SKA Rostov are an ancient team fallen on hard times – so hard in fact, that they have officially withdrawn from competitive football for the rest of the year.
The South is also a league in which nothing is set in stone, or so it would seem. Chernomorets, having been relegated into the league form the First DIvision last season were the clear favourites at the start of the season but a loss of key players and the ubiquitous financial difficulties of running a low-level Russian club has seen them struggle to assert the dominance that many expected of them. Going into Wednesday’s fixtures the Black Sea side held a three point lead at the top of the table, but a 2-1 home defeat to FC Astrakhan saw the Caspian club leapfrog them in the standing, albeit having played a game more.
Also in the title chase are Angusht Nazran, whose 1-0 win over struggling Energia Volzhskiy moved them to within two points of the lead with a game in hand, and Torpedo Armavir, the club from the old Armenian settlement who have come close to the First Division on a number of recent occasions without ever managing to take that final step.
However, the award for the biggest statement of intent in the opening round of fixtures this week goes to Mashuk Pyatigorsk, the club situated in the foothills of the Caucasus and the shadow of Mount Mashuk, bathed in Lermontovian romanticism and seemingly destined to remain on the cusp of promotion until the fates determine otherwise. Traditionally it has been their home record which has been their strength, but not this time.
This time they travelled to Astrakhan to face the weakest team still remaining in the competition, the reserves of First Division strugglers Volgar. Perhaps buoyed by the fact that their opponents are now technically bottom of the table, or simply continuing a run of form which requires looking back to September for their most recent defeat, new manager Valeri Umnov led his team to an emphatic 6-0 win. Although aided by two second half penalties. six different scorers and a barrage of shots on the Volgar goal ensured their biggest win of the season thus far, and moved them to within five points of the summit.
Whether or not Mashuk are able to continue their ascent now that the stifling enigma of Valeri Zazdravnykh has left them remains to be seen, but if they continue putting six past their opponents it won’t be long before they do reach the league’s peak. Representation for one of Russia’s most beautiful cities in national competition may be a dream for now, but with belief on their side and a tight league to contend for, there is plenty of time for Mashuk to spring a surprise. I for one hope they get there.