Not too long before the Russian Premier League’s winter break, all the signs appeared to pointing towards a nightmare season for the Caucasian sides – Anzhi were on the way down, and Terek looked like joining them in the First Division next season.
Fast forward a few months, and only one of those statements remains. Anzhi, despite bolstering their squad over the winter break with players such as Olexander Aliev, Alexander Bukharov and Diniyar Bilyaletdinov, have managed only to break their record winless streak – beating Rubin in the first game back and hauling back a two-goal deficit against Spartak for a point, only to suffer defeats to the sides around them – while a loss at Ural last time out seems to have doomed them to relegation. manager Gadzhi Gadzhiev has all but admitted the lost nature of their cause, and with seven points separating them from even a play-off berth, it would take a miracle over the next eight games for them to survive.
Terek, however, have turned on the style. A win over Tom just before the break seemed to inject some form of self-belief into the struggling squad, and they returned in the new year with a bang, toppling Spartak at home in a match which piled the pressure on the ill-fated Valeri Karpin. A defeat in Ekaterinburg halted their progress, but they followed it up with a win over Kuban, who at any other time would be regarded as comfortable favourites for the tie. While Anzhi face Dinamo, Lokomotiv and Zenit in their next three games, their Chechen rivals travel to Perm and Samara before hosting Rostov – a far more manageable trio, even accounting for the strong form of Amkar.
Terek’s resurgence has opened up the battle to avoid the drop, and Rashid Rakhimov’s side have succeeded in dragging down a number of sides into the mix. Tom Tomsk have been markedly better in their latest attempt at survival, and occupy the other play-off spot, largely courtesy of their ability to grind out draws when other sides are beaten, while Ural have made a habit of winning the games against their fellow strugglers, jumping to an impressive and unpredicted 12th spot. Above them, Krylya Sovetov have a six point gap to automatic relegation and a game in hand, and their own indifferent form should still be enough to keep their heads above the water.
That leaves Volga, the unfashionable Nizhny Novgorod side who, since their promotion, have made doing just enough to survive something of an art form. This time, however, their good fortune could be about to run out.
Replacing Gadzhi Gadzhiev with the relatively inexperienced Yuri Kalitvintsev at the start of the season was always going to be a gamble, but at the time it seemed that with the two newly-promoted sides and Anzhi in turmoil, Volga would have enough to stay afloat. Seven points from their first six games, while far from setting the league on fire, seemed steady enough progress to achieve their usual position of safety in and around the play-offs.
But the inexperience of Kalitvintsev was not the only difficulty Volga had to contend with. Temperamental but talented forward Alexei Sapogov had been angling for a move away from the club and failed, and so at the age of just 25, announced his retirement. Although by no means a boy wonder, steady progress through the lower leagues – scoring one in four for Volga Tver and one in two for Gornyak Uchaly – had brought him to the attention of Volga, and eight goals in 22 games earned a call-up to Russia’s B squad, from whom he scored on his only appearance.
With Sapogov gone, reinforcement was necessary, but Kalitvintsev’s acquisitions did not breed a huge amount of confidence. Instead of the line being led by the relatively young, pacey Sapogov, the Ukrainian manager turned instead to two strikers at their prime at least half a decade ago – the forgotten golden child Dmitri Sychev, and 34-year-old Dmitri Bulykin. Combined with Jamaican international Luton Shelton, who has just two goals in17 appearances, the goals have all but dried up for the Nizhny Novgorod side.
Age and uncertainty seem to be two themes running through the squad, adding to their plight. Estonian Sergei Pareiko is first choice between the sticks at 37, but Volga have also dabbled with Mikhail Komarov and Artur Nigmatullin as their last line of defence, creating new problems at the back. In front of their keepers, their most-played defender – with 17 appearances from 23 league games – is 32-year-old Denis Kolodin, with only one more – Marcin Kowalczyk making more than a dozen starts. With such regular chopping and changing in a key area of the field, it is little surprise that Volga have shipped 49 goals, seven more than any other team and a dozen more than rock-bottom Anzhi.
That same poor defending and lack of goals has seen Volga struggle emphatically, losing every game since the winter break as part of a six-game streak without so much as a point. To find their last win, the side must look back to October 20 and a 2-1 home win over Rubin – since then they have lost eight, drawn two, and been dumped out of the cup by First Division Ska-Energia Khabarovsk.
All things considered, Kalitvintsev’s departure was all but inevitable, but the club’s choice of appointment – Andrei Talalaev – would not appear to solve their problems. Unlike Kalitventsev, who at least managed Ukraine’s under-age national sides and briefly took charge of Zakarpatia Uzhgorod, Talalaev’s has no experience bar a brief caretaker appointment at Rostov in 2011. Assistant’s positions litter his CV, and to throw him into a relegation battle at this stage of the season seems to smack of little more than desperation.
In order to salvage Volga’s season, and indeed their Premier League status, Talalaev will have to settle on a squad quickly, shore up the country’s leakiest defence, and get an ageing and largely ineffectual strikeforce firing for the first time this season. Should he succeed, he will instantly become a hero, but it looks for all the world like Volga’s stay in Russia’s stay in the top flight is finally coming to an end.