When the Russian football championship drew to a close last season, much attention was paid to the controversy which went some way to determining the destination of the Premier League title, with Zenit 3-0 defeat to Dinamo finally upheld on appeal to help CSKA on their way. Those watching the First Division had less intrigue, as Tom Tomsk and Ural Ekaterinburg sealed promotion comfortably in advance – only Khimki’s final day demise offered any excitement.
Further down the pyramid, however, there were one or two surprises. Under the guidance of Spartak legend Dmitri Alenichev, Arsenal Tula emerged from relative obscurity to seal promotion to the second tier. Ingush side Angusht Nazran overcame heavily-favoured Chermomorets Odessa to take the southern title by the narrowest of margins, while Gazovik Orenburg and Luch-Energia Vladivostok made less surprising returns to the second tier.
Whilst, perhaps Gazovik excepted, the newly-promoted sides all possessed at least some element of mystique or intrigue – Luch hailing from the very far east, Arsenal boasting a host of ex-Spartak heroes and rich history, and Angusht representing an area almost completely void of footballing heritage. On the contrary, the fifth promoted side, Khimik Dzerzhinsk, attracted almost no attention after seeing off the challenges of Pskov 747 and Textilshchik Ivanovo to become champions of a weak western division.
The lack of fanfare was, on the face of things, entirely deserved. Khimik won 15 of their 26 games, lost just four times, and were generally difficult to break down. On the contrary, they were far from the free-flowing side that attracts fans to to part with their hard-earned cash, combining the meanest defensive record in the league with a mere 37 goals at the other end. The figure may have proved the second highest in their division, but the western region defined itself in the 2012-13 campaign as an even one, with only a single team (Pskov) netting more than 40 times, and another (FC Rus) allowing the same number of breaches. A high number of draws, low-scoring names, and the absence of any big names – hardly the recipe for a gripping competition.
Another reason behind Khimik’s lack of headlines is the very nature of the team. The western division, style of play aside, is geographically the least intriguing, historically perhaps the least rich. Lokomotiv’s reserves dwell there alongside the two newly-formed sides from St Petersburg, and with only Znamya Truda Orekhovo-Zuevo – the oldest team in Russia – to balance the league, there is little to grab the attention of the footballing romantic.
Nor is there much to draw them to Dzerzhinsk. The city is barely known outside of Russia, and inside it is mentioned only in reference to the abysmal levels of pollution and low life expectancy, a situation made possible by its connections to the chemical weapons industry, including the production of mustard gas. Production officially ceased in the mid-1960s, but levels of arsenic and other harmful substances led to claim the title of Russia’s most polluted city – something the city’s own administration fervently denies. Combined with a name in honour of the founder of the Bolshevik secret police, and it is little wonder that the closest Dzerzhinsk gets to a tourist industry is its twin town relationship with Marmaris.
Nevertheless, unattractive location aside, Khimik as a team have quietly gone about their business. Established since the late 1940s, the team has twice before reached the second tier of the Russian footballing pyramid, and so it should not come as a great surprise that in a relatively weak league they were able to rise to the top. Even so, they were, along with Angusht, made relegation favourites for a reason.
Yet while Angusht currently side rock bottom of the First Division with just a single win from their 12 games thus far, the ‘Dust,’ as they are apparently known, have reached the heady heights of 8th place. Five wins and just three defeats – only one at home – have seen them adapt quickly to life on the national stage, and manager Vadim Khafizov has finally begun to earn plaudits for his side’s achievements.
Khafizov is no managerial superstar, and is barely known within the Russian game. His previous post came as a director at FC Nizhny Novgorod, who have since been reborn after failing in Premier League promotion push. His resumé includes spells at Gornyak Uchaly, Gubkin and Istra Engels – hardly powerhouses of the domestic game.
Yet with an unknown squad and a shoestring budget, he seems to have created one of the more robust sides in the Russian game. In their 12 games so far, fans have been treated to just 21 goals, one of the lowest figures in the league, and indeed it took until matchday seven for Khimik to be involved in game with more than two goals. Such a match has occurred just twice in league play, and both times Khimik have come on the losing side, a 4-0 hammering at the home of relegated Mordovia, and a somewhat surprising 2-1 home reverse to Dinamo St Petersburg. They have only netted two league goals in a single fixture, their most recent 2-0 win over Gazovik.
Yet a team which has so far registered just six scorers in a dozen games is able to stay comfortably afloat in a higher league, and the defence has a huge part to play in such an achievement. Their key man at the back is Valeri Kichin, who at just 20 has turned into the picture of assurance for the unfashionable side. What’s more, the Khimik #2 brings with him something of the exotic to an otherwise unremarkable club, having his roots in the mountainous republic of Kyrzgyzstan and picking up a single cap for his nation after starting his professional life with Dordoi Bishkek.
Alongside defensive partners Sergei Shustikov, Alexander Korotkov and ex-Rostov and Alania man Andrei Proshin, Kichin has earned his new status as part of one of the meanest defences in the country. The Russian second tier may not be the home of free-flowing attacking play and world-class forwards, but comedic errors are commonplace and conditions often appalling. Kichin and his fellow defenders, however, have proven in their first few games that they have the ability and concentration required to hold their own at this level. With a gameplan built on solidity and a forward line in less than inspired form, they will be the ones who determine whether Khimik sink or swim at this level. On the evidence so far, the unfashionable men from the chemical dumping ground might just be ok.