Last May, at the end of the longest season in Russian, a 78th minute strike from Roman Eremenko earned Kurban Berdyev’s Rubin a hard-fought win over Dinamo in Ekaterinburg, giving the two-time Premier League champions their first taste of success in the national cup competition. In many ways, the victory papered over a number of cracks in a disappointing year for the Tatar club, but in the year since they have made the most of that success in some style, reaching the last eight of the Europa League before being bundled out by Chelsea.
This season, Rubin’s cup campaign ended in September, a miserable performance in Krasnoyarsk producing the shock of the round of 32, two first half goals from Rais Sitdikov and Alexei Nikitin giving Yenisei a lead which remained intact until second half stoppage time, Sergei Davydov’s late strike mere consolation as the holders crashed out in disappointing fashion. Many were quick to dismiss the result as a one-off, a poor show for Rubin rather than anything special from the First Division club – they had, after all, laboured to a 1-0 over Sibiryak Bratsk in the previous round – who would almost certainly go out at the next opportunity.
Surprisingly, nobody in Krasnoyarsk read that particular script. Taking advantage of another Premier League failing, they found themselves drawn at home to fellow second tier side SKA-Energia Khabarovsk in the last 16, this time Alexei Bazanov’s goal midway through the first period booking them a place in the quarter-finals as the sole representatives of the First Division. All of a sudden, the unthinkable looked like becoming reality.
Unfortunately for fans of the underdog, such hopes were cruelly crushed on Wednesday afternoon, the quarter-final draw sending them to the capital to take on Premier League leaders CSKA, a side in high spirits after picking up four wins in five since the end of the winter break, and sitting comfortably atop the division with an advantage of six points over their closest rivals Zenit. Somewhat ridiculously, the game was scheduled to be played at the Luzhniki despite Arena Khimki being available, and a pitiful pocket of around 3,500 supporters sat engulfed in emptiness in the 90,000-seater arena. Those looking for an upset were sorely disappointed as Vagner Love put the home side 1-0 up within the first quarter of an hour, and Lenoid Slutsky’s men eventually ran out comfortable 3-0 winners to keep their double dreams alive.
The identity of the clubs joining the league leaders in the final four is also of interest, representing as it does a reversal of the early-season fortunes which had some observers pointing to a footballing revolution in the south of Russia that would usurp the traditional forces of the Centre. Some will point to the fact that two southern sides are involved at all is a stark change from the days of all-Moscow finals held in the Luzhniki, but that one of them is Anzhi is rather a moot point – training and living in Moscow while their new facilities in Dagestan await construction, Guus Hiddink and his men have rapidly made themselves part of the Russian game’s establishment.
Anzhi’s progress to the final has been less then serene, the embarrassment of riches at their disposal failing to translate into the fluid football many have expected from the country’s wealthiest club. First of all their required penalties to get past Ural Ekaterinburg, before relying on a stunning late volley from Serder Serderov to complete a comeback win against Krylya Sovetov. In midweek, facing off against a determined Dinamo side in Makhachkala, only an extra time penalty from Samuel Eto’o saw them through against the side they meet again in the league on Sunday.
In the semi finals they will take to the road once more, heading to St Petersburg and Zenit for a duel which could take on as much symbolic meaning as actual, a collision of wealth in a gas-powered city pitting the riches of the state against those of an individual. Eto’o and Willian against Hulk and Witsel highlights a two-pronged belief in the ability to buy success, and a short-term disregard for young Russian talent. After two routine away wins at Baltika Kaliningrad and Mordovia, followed by a tedious penalty shoot-out victory over stumbling upstarts Kuban on Wednesday, even the brash millionaires of Anzhi will be seen as perfectly beatable by the Petrovsky faithful.
The final side to join them will be Rostov, who completed a second shootout victory in a row over Terek, having beaten Spartak in the same manner in the previous round. Stanislav Cherchesov’s men will be kicking themselves after missing out on an opportunity for the club to utilise home advantage – first by hosting CSKA in the semis and then with the final itself being held in Grozny’s Akhmat-Arena, a far cry from bygone years when a Moscow final was not only expected by enshrined in tradition. Instead it will be Rostov, who currently sit 11th in the Premier League table, who will be seeking to turn a typical story of relegation struggle into one of cup success. Having knocked out an unpredictable side often seen to oppose and collaborate with the authorities in equal measure, Rostov have little relationship with power of there own to alter.
With the semi-final line-up now confirmed, there will be plenty out there arguing that the Russian Cup offers nothing more than one more chance for the odd glamour tie – Zenit and Anzhi in the semis, for example – while the romance that is supposed to define such competitions has all but gone. While seeing the country’s top three in the final four may not seem like the unpredictable tournament fans would enjoy, it is worth noting that unpredictability has hardly been synonymous with the competition since its inception. CSKA look like favourites for a record seventh title, and it is fair to assume that the double would be just reward for a great domestic season. However, as long as sides like Yenisei continue to shock the establishment, as long as the draw provides talking points such as Torpedo vs Dinamo, and as long as the big clubs want to win it, the Russian Cup remains an integral part of the country’s footballing make-up. Whoever takes this year’s title would do well to remember that fact.