It began while much of Europe was still asleep, and indeed many Russians would have only been stirring in their beds when the first goal went in. Vasily Karmazinenko’s 28th minute goals for SKA-Energia Khabarovsk against Volga arrived just before 4.30am in the UK, and by the time the final whistle blew, British clocks were yet to strike six. Nevertheless, Volga were out of the Russian Cup.
Karmazinenko grabbed a double was enough to see off the Nizhny Novgorod side 2-0, and before long they were joined on the cup scrapheap by ‘local’ rivals and an altogether much bigger side in Rubin. Tasked with the equally daunting prospect of a trip to the Far East to take of Luch-Energia Vladivostok, Kurban Berdyev’s men responded by falling a goal behind inside the first three minutes. Ruslan Mukhametshin responded after another ten minutes, but a devastating spell of ten minutes either side of the break saw the hosts breeze through into the next round with a 4-2 win. Things had only just begun.
In many ways, they hadn’t even started. Before they kicked off their tie against Ural, few Russians and ever fewer from elsewhere had even heard of Tosno, a newly-professional outfit plying their trade in the Second Division West this season. Just days before the biggest game in the club’s history they responded to their only defeat of the season by sacking manager Viktor Demidov, amid rumours of the side becoming a farm club for Zenit. After the match, suspicions were confirmed when former Zenit reserve boss Anatoli Davydov took the reins.
By that time, Tosno were heroes in their hometown and the catalysts for a torrent of upsets and shocks across Russia. The third tier club, deprived of their manager and with no previous experience of taking on a top flight side, battled to a goalless draw over the 90 minutes, and then proceeded to dig their heels in for another half to force penalties. With the whole of Russia – or at least the ones paying attention – behind them, Tosno put on a penalty-taking clinic, netting all five of their spotkicks while Gerson Acevedo spurned his chance for Ural. Against all the odds, Tosno had knocked out Ural.
By this stage it was three from three for Premier League knockouts, and so Rostov would have been nervous when travelling to First Division basement dwellers Angusht. An away trip to Ingushetia is unwelcome at the best of times, but Alexander Vasiliev’s goal after just five minutes proved enough to take the top flight side home from Nazran unscathed. At the same time hundreds of miles away, Gazovik Orenburg gave Tom a mighty scare, threatening throughout to take their top tier opponents all the way to penalties, only to be denied by a goal in the 118th minute from Maxim Astafiev. Order was being restored.
Yet still the doubts lingered, and when Leonid Slutsky announced his team for CSKA’s trip to Dzerzhinsk, Khimik would have fancied their chances. Despite the presence of Berezutsky, Shchennikov, Zuber, Milanov and the lesser-spotted Mark Gonzalez, other names on the teamsheet were less threatening. Chepchugov, Vasin and Bazelyuk are promising but not quite Akinfeev, Ignashevich and Doumbia, while debuts where given to Vyacheslav Karavaev in defence and Armen Ambartsumyan in midfield. A bold move by the holders, and one which almost came back to bite them.
Things started well enough for CSKA, Bazelyuk firing them ahead before an own goal from Kyrgyz defender Kichin doubled the advantage. But five minutes after the break, a penalty to the home team gave Khimik a lifeline, and only in the dying moment, when home forward Olexander Kasyan saw red, was progression finely secure. Slutsky had gambled, and it had almost backfired.
Next were Zenit, with one of the best draws they could have hoped for. Third tier Tyumen were one of just five sides from the regional leagues in the last 32, and last year were comfortably dismissed by CSKA in Luzhniki. No match then, for Spalletti’s league-leading superstars.
But the Italian took no chances. Yes, there was a distinct absence of Hulk, Kerzhakov, Hubocan and Lombaerts, but the eleven men that took to the field were no young hopefuls. The average age of the outfield players came in a shade over 30, with the likes of Arshavin, Shirokov, Anyukov and Zyryanov all deployed against the minnows. Before the game, a goalfest was both awaited and expected.
Tyumen had not read the script. Last year they upset Alania on the way to facing CSKA, but Zenit were a different proposition entirely. Defending for their lives from the off, they somehow stumbled into the lead after around half an hour. Anyukov found himself on the floor in his own penalty area and bizarrely penalised by referee Seldyakov, and Mikhail Kanaev beat Baburin to send the third tier side into a shock lead.
If that was a surprise, it was nothing compared to what was to come. On the stroke of half time, a free kick was hoisted into the Zenit area. Baburin came and succeeded only in punching the ball skywards towards his goal. As the ball dropped, the young goalkeeper leapt to claim it under pressure from two Tyumen attackers, only to fumble into his own net for a 2-0 lead. Zenit went in at the break shellshocked, and their hosts could hardly believe their fortune.
Axel Witsel came on at the break for Zyryanov, but Zenit were done. Some commentators suggested Spalletti’s veterans were simply not up for the game, that they had expected to win without really exerting themselves. As the game drew on and time ticked away, the realisation that Zenit were not going to score gradually hit those looking on. They were witnessing history.
Zenit’s 2-0 defeat surely goes down as the biggest upset in Russian Cup history. Tyumen are chasing promotion from the Second Division, but are operating on a completely different level to the title chasers. Their collective budget will come to less than individual Zenit players, and manager Konstantin Galkin’s biggest club to date is Gazovik – a far cry from Spalletti’s previous club, Roma. The equivalent would be Chelsea being knocked out by Cheltenham, Barcelona being upset by Algeciras, Juventus by Carrarese – the precedents are few and far between.
Yet on Wednesday, they kept on coming. While Spartak’s fans unveiled Nazi banners and forced a temporary stoppage of their game in Yaroslavl on their way to a 1-0 win, the biggest spenders in Russia this year continued to suffer. Dan Petrescu’s Dinamo have not clicked into top gear this season, and their sorrows would continue in Belgorod, an early goal for Maxim Andreev putting second tier Salyut into the hat at the expense of opponents who fielded the likes of Gabulov, Samba, Denisov and Dzsudzsak. As Dinamo bowed out, so Amkar sacrificed a two goal lead to Mordovia before succumbing on penalties, becoming the sixth Premier League team of the day to bow out.
They would not be the last. Any hopes of more third tier representation in the last 16 were blown apart by Krasnodar, the southern club emphasising the gap between the leagues with a comfortable 4-1 win over Dolgoprudny. However, in Volgograd there would be another huge surprise, and one which conjured memories of bygone days.
Rotor were once a big club in Russia, big enough to knock Manchester United out of Europe and big enough to challenge Spartak at their most dominant. However, the 90s are long gone, and today’s Rotor sees the club struggling in a run-down stadium at the wrong end of the First Division, battling for survival with Dinamo St Petersburg rather than the Premier League title with Zenit.
As such, Lokomotiv would have had little to fear in their trip down south, fielding a line-up featuring the likes of Felipe Caicedo, Victor Obinna, Roman Shishkin and Magomed Ozdoev. By contrast, Rotor’s biggest names are heroes in their own households – Alexander Stavpets, Roman Voidel and CSKA loanee Petr Ten. Another mismatch of sizable proportions.
Yet on that day, reputation and stature were mocked and scorned. Rotor had to defend for much of the game, were pinned into the own half of large spells, but at the same time presented a genuine threat on the counter and had chances of their own through Stavpets. Goalless at the break, goalless at the final whistle, and goalless after extra time – they too would face the nail-biting spectacle of the shootout.
Minutes later, they were celebrating. Caicedo stepped up first and was denied by Pchelintsev in goal, and the same goalkeeper then performed a superb stop to deny Ozdoev. With the chance to book a spot in the next round and a place in history, Alexander Malygin sent Kresich the wrong way, and another giant had fallen. Volgograd partied into the night, the 13,500 spectators – double Rotor’s usual crowd – witnessed a miracle, and Lokomotiv were no more.
As the sun set on one crazy day, so it rose again on another, with four more matches scheduled for Thursday. Two went to plan – Terek easing to a 3-1 win over Neftekhimik in a game which saw three red cards, and First Division Alania added to Anzhi’s misery with a 1-0 win, the Dagestani side limping hopelessly out of the cup in the same manner they have been performing in the league.
However, two more matches saw drama by the bucketload as yet more top flight teams joined the list of those eliminated. In the day’s first game, Kuban looked to be safely through after overturning an early deficit at Zvezda Ryazan to lead 2-1, only to be denied by a late penalty. Extra time yielded no goals, and Victor Goncharenko’s first cup game in charge of the Krasnodar side ended in defeat, the plucky third tier outfit booking a ticket to the next round where they will face Kuban’s local rivals.
To round out the day, and to make it a full ten clubs from the Premier League out at the first hurdle, Sokol Saratov took on Krylya Sovetov. Dependable for mediocrity, Krylya took a lead which looked like being enough against an active but profligate home team, only for their world to crumble in the dying moments. Ibrahim Tsallagov picked up a second yellow card 12 minutes from time, and four minutes later Azamat Gonezhukov sent the fans wild with the equaliser. Almost inevitably, extra time passed with no further goals, and again a Premier League failed from the spot, handing Sokol the dream tie with CSKA.
Plenty of arguments have been put forward for the consistent failure of the top teams to make progress in the cup – a cup which now sees Rostov as favourites to reach the final alongside one of either CSKA or Spartak, and is guaranteed a Far Eastern side in the last eight – but it is an issue clouded by the team selections made by many of the managers in question. Zenit went for a team of experience, Dinamo’s side should have been ample to see off Salyut, and Rubin and Lokomotiv’s selections on paper should have blown past Luch and Rotor.
Yet at the same time, Kuban rested their entire first XI in defeat to Zvezda, Amkar, Volga and Ural fielded teams almost unrecognisable from their usual line-ups, and Anzhi have neither the resources nor the experience to compete in the league, Europe and domestic cup. There is no genuine pattern to be found.
Complacency is one reason mooted, but even so it is difficult to imagine more than half of the Premier League succumbing to a mental malaise on the same occasion. One pundit has suggested the top flight teams are brought into the tournament in earlier rounds to level the playing field, but it is unlikely to be carried forward.
The conundrum lies in the fact that the gap between the Premier League and First Division, let alone the regional leagues, is growing by the year – the struggles of Alania and Mordovia last year and Ural and Tom in this campaign are clear evidence of the gulf in quality. Increased competitiveness across the divisions, something lauded in many Western leagues, is certainly not the case in Russia.
Could it be, then, that the often abused and cliched ‘magic of the cup’ successfully seized a nation so often impervious to the notion of footballing romance? Were a host of lower league minnows inspired by increased home support to play their hearts out and earn the victories of a lifetime? We’ll never really know, but for the sake of a game blighted once more by racist accusations and crowd trouble, we can only hope.