Image from themoscowtimes.com

2013 – A Russian Round-up: Premier League

Image from themoscowtimes.com
Igor Denisov’s brief spell at Anzhi proved a major top flight talking point.

As 2013 draws to a close in the midst of Russia’s long winter break, now seems as good a time as any to look back over the previous 12 months and pick out the stories that dominated the headlines. In this post, we look at the movers and shakers in the nation’s top flight, with a brief recap of the last year in the Premier League.

When the Russian Premier League resumed business in March, the title race was still finally balanced, CSKA and Zenit competing for top spot with a stuttering Anzhi side in hot pursuit. Ultimately it was European competition which proved to be the key factor – CSKA’s disappointingly early exit from Europa League action – a play-off defeat to AIK Solna ensuring they never made the competition proper – freeing them up to focus entirely on league action.

Meanwhile, their two title rivals struggled to cope with the rigours of league, cup, and European competitions. Zenit eventually crashed out of the Europa League in a typically frustrating manner, showing signs of genuine quality against Liverpool to eliminate the Anfield giants, only to allow a familiar combination of profligacy and shocking away form to haunt them, falling in the last 16 at the hands of Swiss side Basel. Meanwhile, Anzhi put in a good showing in their first European adventure for years, breaking out of a strong group containing Liverpool and Udinese, overcoming Hannover in the first knockout round before a goal in the dying seconds of extra time at St James’ Park saw Newcastle progress to the next stage.

In the same competition, it was reliable Rubin that continued to fly the Russian flag. Kurban Berdyev’s Tatar side were given little hope of overcoming Atletico Madrid in their knockout tie, but a sensational 2-0 win in the Spanish capital was enough to see them through to more Iberian opposition in the form of Levante. two less than thrilling ties followed, but in the end it was Rubin who came alive when it mattered, netting twice in extra time to go through 2-0 on aggregate. They met their end in the quarter finals when coming up against eventual winners Chelsea, but a 3-2 home win after a 3-1 defeat at Stamford Bridge showed the watching world that Rubin have found a formula that seems to work well for knockout football – something Zenit could learn from for future campaigns.

Back in the league, things were not all well for Berdyev’s men, as an all-too familiar lack of goals saw them stumble home in 6th place, missing the league qualifying spots for Europe only to be saved by the title challengers making strong progress in the cup. The top three all made it to the semi finals, where Anzhi announced their arrival on the main stage with a 1-0 win over Zenit at Petrovsky. Rostov blew the chance to make the final by falling 2-0 at home to CSKA in extra time, and in the end it was the Army Men who took the spoils in the final, Anzhi unable to take advantage of Pontus Wernbloom’s 87th minute red card and eventually falling on penalties after a 1-1 draw.

It would be the second trophy of two for Leonid Slutsky’s men, who came into the final on the back of claiming a first league title since 2006. In the end things proved comfortable, CSKA winding up two points clear of Zenit despite taking just a single point from their final two games. Consistency, a lack of major drama – compared to the usual periods of self-destruction at Zenit, Spartak and Dinamo – and a combination of a solid defence and increasing maturity from Nigerian striker Ahmed Musa were all key in their title success, while Slutsky himself was hailed by many as one of Russia’s finest tacticians.

Yet for many the major stories of the season were to be found elsewhere. At the bottom, there were few surprises as first Alania, under the failing management of first Vladimir and then father Valeri Gazzaev, and then newcomers Mordovia were relegated back to the First Division at the first time of asking, with neither – despite Alania’s double swoop for Renan Bressan and Roysthon Drenthe – putting up much of a fight. That was until the final game of the season, when Alania took the phrase a little too literally – in a match opponents Dinamo needed to win, Alania’s 1-0 success was marred by a mass brawl which saw the horror tackle of Alexander Kokorin punished by a red card, along with Balasz Dszudszak from the Moscow side and the Alania pair of top scorer Danilo Neco and Georgi Chanturia. Dinamo missed out on Europe as a result, and Alania’s woes continued well into the next season.

The two teams with the most varying fortunes however, were more central in the table. By far the most disappointing side of the season were Lokomotiv, who had announced the appointment of former Croatia man Slaven Bilic to much fanfare over the summer. Bilic arrived with generous backing from the Cherkizovo board, but failed to deliver anything like what was expected, and after a brief saga at season’s end, departed with just a 9th place finish to his name.

Conversely, Kuban were undoubtedly the success of the season. Despite providing enough drama for a soap opera – Dan Petrescu was poached by Dinamo at the start of the season before Yuri Krasnozhan steadied the ship only to fall out spectacularly with the board over transfers in the winter break, before unheralded Leonid Kuchuk saw out the season – the Krasnodar club achieved a remarkable top four finish, taking the side into Europe for the first time ever. The side would suffer as a result – Aras Ozbiliz, Alexei Ionov, Vladislav Kulik and Marcos Pizzelli all whisked away over the summer – but a it would prove a sign that football in the city continues to rise despite rejection from the 2018 World Cup.

To the summer then, and without a shadow of a doubt the biggest story of the year – Anzhi. Suleyman Kerimov’s billionaires hit the transfer market hard, coming out with national team captain Igor Denisov from Zenit and €35 million poster boy Kokorin from Dinamo. While Zenit’s transfer policy of bringing back the old guard seemed suspect at best, Anzhi boasted the strongest squad ever seen in the Russian league, and seemed destined for glory. Yet, just three matches into the new season, everything fell apart. Rather than recounting the details, a contemporary account explains the ins and outs of the Dagestani drama.

To the new season then, and with the majority of Anzhi’s megastars now at Dinamo, or overseas in the case of Eto’o and Willian, the title race was once again blown wide open. For the first few weeks it seemed as if Spartak, yet again under the management of perennial caretaker Valeri Karpin could rise to the top with a blistering start – a start matched only by the incredible form of Rostov, boosted by Spartak loanees Artem Dzyuba and Jano Ananidze – but thus far no one team has truly taken hold of the competition.

One side which has once more hit the headlines has been Zenit, Luciano Spalletti’s side whose unbeaten run at one stage looked like sending them streaks clear atop the table. However, poor European form – the St Petersburg club somehow qualified for the Champions League knockout rounds despite winning just one of their six games and taking a 4-1 thrashing at minnows Austria Vienna – the cup shock of the century in losing to third-tier Tyumen, and a series of dropped points quickly brought them back into the pack.

At the winter break they share the lead with the man of the moment in Leonid Kuchuk. The Belarusian, who guided Kuban to 4th in the midst of last season’s turmoil, stepped in at Cherkizovo to replace Bilic, and the results have been remarkable. Buoyed by the signings of Lassana Diarra and Mbark Boussoufa in Anzhi’s firesale, the Muscovites have matched Zenit stride for stride so far, and for the first time in a decade look like genuine title contenders. A cup defeat to Rotor Volgograd aside, they have ticked all the right boxes, and look to be a genuine threat.

While Zenit, Lokomotiv and Spartak set the pace – the three are separated by a single point – there has been disappointment for CSKA, who sit six points off the pace in 5th and face losing Keisuke Honda to Milan after seeing Vagner Love’s return cut short by a surprise Chinese bid, Rubin, who sit just 10th despite serene progress in the Europa League, and Dinamo, who have yet to convert their new spending power into success, sitting 4th and five points off the top.

Elsewhere, Rostov’s flying start has been somewhat checked as they sit 11th, and their plucky underdog status has been usurped by Amkar. The unfashionable Perm side benefited from Ramzan Kadyrov’s bizarre decision to relieve Stanislav Cherchesov of his duties at Terek, and the former Spartak boss has seen his men climb to the giddy heights of 7th and the fringes of Europe. Providing the Bulgarian duo of Blagoi Georgiev and Georgi Peev continue to fire, there is every chance that Amkar could be this season’s Kuban.

Last season’s Kuban, however, are struggling. Forced to look on as their cross-city rivals fly high in 6th, last season’s surprise package are already on to their second manager of the season as they labour in 9th. A respectable Europe League campaign – third in a group containing Swansea, Valencia and Spartak’s conquerors St Gallen – their signings have been unable to replace those lost to bigger clubs, and a demanding board has bred instability at the helm. Dorinel Munteanu was subject to a lengthy legal battle to wrest him away from relegated Mordovia, but less than 20 games later he saw the sack. His replacement is undoubtedly talented, having claimed multiple titles with Belarus’ BATE, but Victor Goncharenko no longer has the financial and infrastructural advantage on his side.

Other strugglers are perhaps to be expected – Ural sit in the relegation zone despite a promising performance in the opening weeks, while fellow promoted side Tom are relying on shock wins and home conditions to maintain their spot in the play-off position alongside Terek, who have suffered with the loss of Cherchesov and failed to build on last year’s strong showing. Volga and Krylya Sovetov have assumed their now-customary lower midtable positions, and relegation seems to be a question of who will join Anzhi in the First Division next season.

Yes, Anzhi are almost certain to go down. It sounds crazy to say just months after backing them for the title, but the most talked-about club in Russia have crumbled as a top-flight force. The summer sales have left gaping holes all over the club, and while Kerimov’s infrastructure improvements and ongoing youth work should one day see fruit, today’s squad is a shadow of its former self. Of the previous side, only Lacine Traore – who has managed just five games this season – Odil Akmedov, Brazilian pair of Jucilei and Everton, and long-term injury victim Andrei Eshchenko still remain, with the rest of the squad a mixture of Dinamo loanees, local youths and offcuts from elsewhere. No wins in 19 games and just eight points to their name, Anzhi’s days in the sun – despite making the Europe League knockout stage – are well and truly over.

With 11 games still to play, little else is certain in the Premier League. Transfer speculation is just beginning with the arrival of the winter break, clubs’ European fates are unknown heading into the new year, and the domestic cup was blown wide open after a black day for the Premier League which saw the majority of side eliminated at the hands of lower league opposition. After Zenit’s procession to the 2011/12 crown, and CSKA’s convincing win last time round, as things stand the current season promises to be one of the most open for some time. With Zenit, Lokomotiv and Spartak all in the hunt and the chasing pack not far behind, Europe up for grabs and relegation no sure thing, expect plenty of twists and turns along the way. In Russia, it’s the one thing we can be sure of.

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