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2013 – A Russian Round-up: Lower Leagues

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Sokol Saratov have had a fairytale season so far.

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 stories from below the top flight, with a round-up of the second and third tiers.

A quick glance at the top end of the First Division in its current state would have you believe that nothing has changed since 2011/12 – Mordovia lead the pack from Alania, with Shinnik one of a number of teams chasing them down and praying for a favourable draw in the thus-far redundant play-offs. Indeed, it would appear unlikely that any of the challengers would be able to overhaul the sides from Saransk and Vladikavkaz, but there is far more to the table than meets the eye.

For starters, Alania’s very existence still hangs in the balance. With no decision set to be made on the troubled North Ossetians until the middle of January – who suffered a 3-0 technical defeat in their final game of the year by refusing to fly to Vladivostok and take on Luch-Energia, themselves chasing promotion – their future hinges on a legal technicality which will determine whether or not their chief sponsors are prepared to fund them for the rest of their contract. As things stand, the 1995 Russian champions are owned by their regional government and are registered as publicly-owned – RusHydro will only back the club if they can become the majority owners. Should Alania be toppled, everything changes, not least because of their rich history and large fanbase.

Of course, a phoenix club would almost certainly step into their place, most likely in the Second Division for next season, and the process has often been something of a familiar cycle for fans of sides below the top flight. Last season saw the second tier finish with just 17 clubs after late replacements for withdrawals were not found, and this season the nominally 20-team format is reduced to 19, rumours of Fakel Voronozh stepping in maintain the numbers proving fruitless due to the sporting argument and timeframe involved.

One such club who have enjoyed spectacular success is Arsenal Tula. Reformed after increasing demand from a substantial lower league fanbase, Dmitri Alenichev has made the most of his resources and got Arsenal firing quickly. A promotion from the regional tiers and sudden rise to the top of the First Division had many people predicting instant Premier League football for the former Spartak boss, but an unexpected cup defeat to Sokol Saratov saw his side win just four of their next 13 games and slip out of the promotion place. Still, just six points back from the precarious Alania, their promotion dream is very much alive and well, and the Tula side are one of the few sides with the support to sustain top flight football.

Around them at the top of the table, Shinnik have put a poor 2012/13 behind them to dream of top flight football once more, while Luch and Ufa have high hopes of making it to the elite league for the third and first time respectively – the former after emerging from the Second Division last time round. Currently in 7th, and at the moment the last team deemed good enough to sustain a promotion charge, Torpedo Moscow are bouncing back after finishing last season perilously close to the regional leagues. Whilst Eduard Streltsov has seen a fair number of Premier League games this season due to ground trouble elsewhere in Moscow, it would mean far more to the Torpedo faithful to see their own side once again facing their Moscow rivals at the highest level.

Further down the table, sides who emerged from the regional divisions have had varying fortunes so far. The story of 2012/13 in the Second Division was undoubtedly Angusht Nazran, the side from Ingushetia who defied all the odds, not to mention the likes of Chornomorets Novorossiysk, to clinch promotion into the second tier. Unfortunately for the Ingush faithful, they have been found wanting, and their assortment of local youths seem destined to fall through the relegation trapdoor.

The same could yet be true of Khimik Dzerzhinsk, the side who appeared on almost no-one’s radar to seal promotion last season. A number of promising performances in the early part of the season seemed to put them in a good position for the year ahead, but a number of defeats, including a somewhat self-inflicted wound at the hands of CSKA in the cup, have seen them slip to a point dangerously close to the final relegation position.

That position is currently occupied by Rotor Volgograd, another giant of the lower league whose history and fanbase is let down by the ability of the current playing staff. A good run in 2012/13 saw them finish comfortably in midtable, but a poor start this season saw Victor Burlachenko unceremoniously dumped by the club. With him went legendary striker and assistant manager Oleg Veretennikov, but the appointment of Fedor Shcherbachenko – the man who masterminded Mordovia’s promotion – brought the former Russian international back to the soon-to-be-redeveloped Central stadium, and a famous shoot-out win over Lokomotiv in the cup has given the Volgograd side hope of avoiding the dreaded drop.

Should they suffer that fate, they will drop into the southern branch of five, where they are likely to face city rivals Olimpia. Olimpia narrowly avoided relegation themselves last season, but this time round they are pushing well in 3rd place behind recently-relegated Volgar-Gazprom Astrakhan and regional giants Chornomorets, with phoenix club SKVO (formerly SKA) Rostov holding their own in one of the most interesting divisions in Russia. At the other end of the table, Mashuk-KMV Pyatigorsk’s strong performance last year appears in vain, as they sit in danger of falling off the edge of the footballing world.

In the Far East, there is a pleasing absence of a recently relegated side blowing apart inferior opposition, thanks in part to the smaller proportion of sides plying their trade east of the Urals. Instead, the lead in that division falls to Sakhalin, who are set to cause all sorts of problems should they continue their blistering early season form – just eight goals conceded in 16 games and a single league defeat all season. Their promotion would not only shatter Okean Nakhodka’s record as the eastern-most team to play in Russia’s top two tiers, but also be something of a fairytale for the club from an island described as hell itself by one of Russia’s leading literary figures – and no doubt provide a new focus for the area after the long-standing Far Eastern domination of Luch-Energia in Vladivostok and SKA-Energia in (relatively) nearby Khabarovsk.

Between them, the other three divisions all currently feature sides looking to recapture past glories. In the West, Textilshchik Ivanovo are a side used to plying their trade on a national level, and lead Tosno, a newly-formed side recently integrated into the Zenit family and who conquered Ural in the cup, by just two points having played a game more. The biggest side in the division, former Premier League side Khimki, have suffered greatly as a result of their fall from grace last season, and sit a handful of points further back, seven off the top and never really in contention to this point.

Another side with top flight experience is Tyumen, and after their incredible 2-0 win over Zenit in the cup, the Ural/Volga have the big guns in their sights once again as they sit atop their own regional table. However, despite their cup heroics, the job is far from finished – Tyumen pushed hard last season only to wind up three points behind Gazovik Orenburg, and this season Volga Ulyanovsk are hot on their heels, just two points behind. The Ural/Volga region is perhaps the one Second Division league to be cursed with a number of teams simply not fit for purpose – ignoring the 10-point gap from Volga in 2nd to Syzran-2003 in 3rd, the likes of Spartak Yoshkar-Ola, Oktan Perm and Dinamo Kirov – who between them have mustered just six wins – could quite easily be removed from the professional ranks with little consequence bar removing the only opposition Rubin’s reserves are ever likely to beat.

The influx of reserve sides to the Second Division has been subject of much debate this season, with the general consensus concluding that it has yet to convince the big teams of its worth. The one division relatively unaffected – Spartak’s seconds the exception – is the Central zone, with the Moscow giants’ reserves mired firmly in midtable. A look down the table reads like a graveyard for sides who until recently enjoyed the heady heights of the First Division – Fakel, Vityaz Podolsk, Dinamo Bryansk, Avangard Kursk – and yet it is currently Sokol Saratov who lead the way, and will do so in the new year buoyed by a win in the cup over Premier League opposition in Krylya Sovetov. Joining them on the list of giant-killers from the region are unheralded Zvezda Ryazan, who belied their lowly 11th position and poor form – no win in five league games – to first come from behind and dump Kuban out on penalties after a 2-2 draw and then push Krasnodar to the wire, leading and then levelling only to fall 3-2.

As ever in the lower leagues, nothing is ever guaranteed. As Angusht showed last season, promotion can be achieved by the most unlikely of sides, and as Alania may bemon the verge of demonstrating, there is little certainty even in the number of the teams in the league table. The football may be far from the highest quality, the clubs may struggle to draw in enough fans to justify playing, and the sponsors may be disappearing in droves, but for clubs providing an identity to otherwise unremarkable regions and enough subplots to write a soap opera, the lower leagues of the Russian game are the perfect place to take a look.


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