With the dust finally settled on the Russian Premier League, and attentions now turned to the World Cup in Brazil, it’s time for a round-up of the league season. With last-day drama and the play-offs yielding unexpected results, there is plenty to talk about from the top of the table to the bottom.
1st: CSKA Moscow
If anybody had been asked at Christmas whether CSKA could retain their title, they would have laughed. At the time, Leonid Slutsky’s men were struggling to think about Champions League qualification, let alone the title, and were locked in a battle for European football. Having lost Vagner Love and Keisuke Honda for little recompense and brought in few replacements, the champions looked in danger of giving up their crown in a rather limp fashion.
However, with Seydou Doumbia returning to fitness and Slutsky showing why he is regarded as one of the country’s top managers, CSKA came roaring back in some style. After the winter break they lost just one game in the league, winning their last 10 matches and conceding just three goals in the process. Considering at one point in the season they went five matches without a win, to see them catch up to and then overhaul Zenit and Lokomotiv was incredible.
The challenge now for CSKA is to cement their dominance with a more convincing display next time out. They need to buy well and hit the ground running if they are to combine domestic and European concerns, with their rivals sure to strengthen in a bid to deny them three in a row.
2nd: Zenit St Petersburg
Another season, another series of internal flashpoints in St Petersburg. With arguably the strongest squad in the division, the revelation of Yuri Lodygin in goal only bolstered Luciano Spalletti’s side, and in the early stages of the season, Zenit were up there were the leaders.
However, all was not well in the camp, and a dismal Champions League group – which remarkably saw them qualify despite miserable showings – coupled with failure to act decisively in the winter transfer market and an embarrassing cup exit to third-tier Tyumen saw Spalletti lose his job. November killed their title bid at a time when Lokomotiv were charging away, and eventually the club turned to Andre Villas-Boas as the high-profile solution to the problem.
To his credit, the Portuguese turned things round, losing just one game, but it would prove a decisive one. Having failed to overcome Lokomotiv, Zenit fell apart at home to Dinamo when a win would have put them in pole position for the title on the penultimate day of the season, the fans intervening to make a 4-2 loss a 3-0 technical defeat, and handing the league to CSKA. With the biggest budget in Russia, Villas-Boas will be expected to deliver the title next season.
3rd: Lokomotiv Moscow
On the face of things, third place for Lokomotiv is a great achievement, their highest finishing position since 2006 and a huge improvement on the dismal 9th place managed by Slaven Bilic last season. However, having led the way for so much of the campaign, the previously unheralded Leonid Kuchuk must have been left wondering what might have been.
Unlike their rivals, Loko remained generally consistent throughout the season, with no one patch of spectacular form or constant disappointment to punctuate the campaign. Instead they continued quietly, turning draws into wins and defeats into draws, never going more than two matches without picking up a victory.
Had they maintained that record, they would have been crowned champions. However, in the final three games of the season, at the most critical stage of the campaign, they picked up just a single point and slumped to third, missing out even on Champions League football. With the likes of Mbark Boussoufa, Alexander Samedov and Dame N’Doye having a point to prove in the coming season and Kuchuk’s undoubted tactical ability, it remains to be seen whether Lokomotiv were a one-season wonder, or whether they can sustain regular title challenges alongside European football. The Russian league would be a lot richer if they were to hang around at the top table.
4th: Dinamo Moscow
Dinamo, having bought half of Anzhi’s stars, lost and found their boy wonder Kokorin, taken on new billionaire owners and sacked their manager all in the space of a few manic months, have achieved almost exactly what was expected of them this season.
Expectations were of course heightened by the big-money signings over the summer and the arrival of the Rotenbergs at the helm – expectations which would ultimately cost Dan Petrescu his job – but Dinamo’s habit of causing the top sides problems and slipping up against the league’s lower lights – the Romanian was sacked after a 4-0 humiliation at Anzhi – left them comfortably in a European spot without ever challenging for the title.
Next season, with Stanislav Cherchesov having found his feet on the touchline and the billionaire backers certain to splash the cash, Dinamo could be expected to climb even higher up the ladder. However, with so many teams all fancying themselves for a shot at glory, it would be no great surprise if another similar finish greeted the club next season.
Initially, it appeared that Krasnodar made a mistake in sacking Slavoljub Muslin, the man who had cemented them as a top flight side and who had managed Sergei Galitsky’s money well indeed. However, by the end of the year, Krasnodar found themselves in Europe for the first time in their history, and were just a penalty shoot-out from claiming their first piece of major silverware.
Under Oleg Kononov, Krasnodar’s attacking style of football has won plenty of plaudits, with the Brazilian trio of Joaozinho, Wanderson and Ari in particular coming in for praise. Thanks to their success, they have also succeeded in becoming a viable option for Russian players – alongside Zenit and the Moscow sides – with Roman Shirokov joining on loan and Pavel Mamaev becoming a regular in the midfield.
The challenge now for Krasnodar is to balance domestic and European matters – something city rivals Kuban failed to achieve – and hold together the core of their squad as they look to build for the future. Of all the teams in the league, Krasnodar are the side best equipped to gatecrash the long-established elite, and that journey must continue in the right direction.
6th: Spartak Moscow
Another year, another trophyless campaign for Spartak, and the damage this time is greater after the spectacular fashion in which the season so rapidly unravelled.
After 10 games, Spartak were in the hunt for the title, having dropped just seven points and played some impressive football at the time. even through to Christmas, the biggest club in Russia remained in contention, putting early-season European humiliation behind it to stay in the chase for domestic glory. Yet a return to action in the spring saw a defeat to lowly Terek and a cup embarrassment at third-tier Tosno, results which spelled the end for the polarising Valeri Karpin.
Unable to appoint the successor they wanted, the board plumped for inexperienced assistant Dmitri Gunko until the end of the season, and their faith was rewarded with just three wins in nine games, seeing Spartak slip from 3rd to 6th and miss out on Europe altogether, only being reprieved by the inability of cup winners Rostov to gain a UEFA licence. The club, with the exceptions of Yura Movsisyan and Dmitri Kombarov, lacks leaders, the fans lack patience and the players seem to lack belief – improvement next season is a must if Spartak ever hope of returning to their previous glories.
This year might have yielded even more for Rostov, but in the end they proved that a little patience and opportunism can go a long way in the modern game.
One of just a handful of sides not to sack at least one manager over the course of the season, Miodrag Bozovic rewarded the club’s faith with a major improvement on last season. Helped by Spartak’s strange decision to loan out Artem Dzyuba – who became the top Russian scorer in the league – and Georgian playmaker Jano Ananidze, the Don club threatened a shock title charge in the early weeks before settling back down into upper midtable with some reasonably attractive football.
The major story for Rostov however, was their cup win – their first major silverware – and it will be a platform on which they hope to build next season, even if 7th is a realistic high point for them. Wise use of the loan market will be key once more if they are to repeat this year’s feats, but they have shown themselves to be more than the play-off fodder previously indicated.
8th: Kuban Krasnodar
A topsy-turvy season at the other Krasnodar club, which saw the running of the club brought into question and a number of star players sold off before the action began.
Last year’s impressive campaign was rewarded by bigger clubs swooping in, both for players – Aras Ozbiliz the biggest name to depart – and the manager, with Leonid Kuchuk poached by Lokomotiv after just a few months at the helm. In came a number of players of questionable quality – the ageing Djibril Cisse the most dubious deal – and manager Dorinel Munteanu, who only made the move from recently relegated Mordovia Saransk after a lengthy legal battle.
Bizarrely enough, Munteanu did not even last the season, with Viktor Goncharenko drafted in from BATE Borisov to take over after a poor start and failure to qualify from the Europa League group stages. Goncharenko has Champions League experience in Belarus and a winning record, albeit with a dominant team, and it remains to be seen whether he can haul Kuban back into European contention despite ongoing rumours regarding the club’s finances.
9th: Rubin Kazan
In a season when almost every team in the league sacked their manager, no single dismissal came as simultaneously expected and shocking as the departure of Kurban Berdyev from the former champions in Tatarstan.
Berydev left shortly before Christmas after more than a decade at the helm, the Turkmen manager having led Rubin from obscurity to two-time league winners and a European pedigree. However, this season as in recent campaigns, with the club unable to hold on to key players and other clubs overtaking them in terms of resources, the difficult truth is that Rubin are no longer able to compete at the top level. The appointment of inexperienced Rinat Bilyaletdinov may have been an attempt to enliven their playing style, but seemed to confirm their new lowly status.
With Salomon Rondon, Bibras Natkho, Salvatore Bocchetti and Alexander Ryazantsev all departed, and key creative outlet Roman Eremenko seemingly on the way, times look hard for Rubin. Their hopes lie in their appeal to players of Turkic descent, a scouting department able to unearth gems of the calibre of Sardar Azmoun, and a renewed injection of funds from the Tatar authorities. Until all three coincide, midtable will be Rubin’s home.
10th: Amkar Perm
With Stanislav Cherchesov leading the side, Amkar’s 10th place would be seen as the ideal platform on which to build and lead the charge for the provincial club to keep growing. With Cherhcesov now on the sidelines at Dinamo and no decision made on his successor, the future is a lot less certain in Perm.
Between the two of them, the Bulgarian pair of Georgi Peev and Blagoy Georgiev have earned plenty of plaudits, but Amkar on the whole are not a team loaded with the talent to take them to the next level – they are a side reliant on accepting the cast-offs of Moscow clubs, rather than a traditional step on a player’s upward trajectory. However, after Cherchesov led Amkar to a brief European charge, the hope will be that this can change.
Nevertheless, cup dreams and the vague hope of capturing a youngster for his break-out season – a hope that this year failed in Maxim Kanunnikov – are all that remain for Amkar, a side just too strong to go down, and too weak to ever realistically battle for top half contention.
11th: Ural Ekaterinburg
Although 11th place may seem an almost pointless position in a league of 16, in Ural’s possession is represents one of the finest achievements of the entire Russian season. Finally promoted after years of coming close, there were few who believed they had the ability to pull their weight in the top flight, let alone dodge the play-offs.
Bearing in mind that Ural have been managed by three different bosses in their first season since promotion, survival is all the more impressive, with Alexander Tarkhanov – who assumed control in November – deserving a huge amount of credit for inspiring his team of veterans, youngsters and unspectacular foreign imports to gather the points needed to ensure a second season at the top level.
Next year, with four sides coming up from the First Division, Ural will be confident of their ability to once again avoid the drop. However, they will also need to improve if they are to battle the momentum of the newly-promoted sides – with no obvious favourites for relegation, they are sure to be drawn into the scrap.
12th: Terek Grozny
The departure of Stanislav Cherchesov before the start of the season was arguably the turning point in Terek’s season, the previous manager guiding them to an impressive 2012-13 campaign before having an extension refused. In came Yuri Krasnozhan for a customarily short spell, and for a while Terek looked in grave danger of relegation.
Bottom at week 11, still in the drop zone at Christmas, the Chechens were saved as much by the dramatic dips in form of Volga and Krylya Sovetov, but by doing enough to cling to Premier League status this time, they will surely be in a stronger position to do so again next year.
Whether Rashid Rakhimov sees out the next season is unknown and unlikely, given the heightened demands likely to be imposed on him from Ramzan Kadyrov, but what is sure is Terek possess both the resources and the desire to compete at a higher level than the fringes of relegation. Expect some improvement next year, with yet more incident surrounding the club.
13th: Tom Tomsk
A 13th place finish would usually be a great finish for Tom, who have often relied on government bailouts simply to remain in existence as a football club, and at the start of the season would have seen anything above 15th as a resounding success.
However, by dismissing Sergei Perednya – the man who won them promotion – with Zenit reserve coach Anatoli Davydov, and then removing him with the club in trouble at the foot of the table, the club’s management showed both the decisiveness and the instability guaranteed to keep their side in the mix at the wrong end of the table, and with the play-offs always posing a danger, that was where Tom ended their campaign.
Before the first leg, Tom would have feared little from First Division 4th-placed side Ufa, the Bashkir club having only been founded in 2010 and regarded as a shock contender for promotion. Nevertheless, a four-goal demolition job from Dmitri Golubev gave Ufa a 5-1 home win in the first leg, and a 3-1 return defeat could not save Tom. An instant return to the top flight is now a necessity if their long-term future is to be preserved.
14th: Krylya Sovetov Samara
All good things must come to an end, but that does not mean they are expected to. A year ago, Krylya Sovetov, who had never been relegated from the Russian Premier League, comfortably won a play-off to ensure their safety, and with troubled Tom and unheralded Ural coming up, they looked safe to survive once more, particularly after the Anzhi debacle at the start of the campaign.
But somewhere along the line, everything went wrong. Their manager, veteran tactician Gadzhi Gadzhiev, left to go back to Anzhi once more, and the wins they needed continued to elude them. Even so, with just 10 games to go Krylya say 10th in relative safety, and relegation seemed unthinkable, particularly as the play-offs had never been won by a second tier club.
But defeat bred defeat, and when Torpedo Moscow arrived for their shot at glory, they smelt Samaran blood. A 2-0 win on ‘home’ soil in Ramenskoye and a goalless draw on the banks of the Volga sent Torpedo up for the first time in years, and the Krylya down for the first time since the USSR still stood. Returning, and indeed surviving, will be a huge test.
15th: Volga Nizhny Novgorod
In many ways, it is a surprise it has taken this long for Volga to go down – perennial favourites and with an unspectacular squad, in their previous years they have just about managed to stay afloat, even ending the life of their former city rivals in one play-off encounter to keep their heads above the water.
Whereas in past campaigns, managerial chopping and changing has done the trick, this year no magic ingredient was found to get the World Cup host city in the Premier League. Volga started poorly but still managed to pick up a few points, and at the midway point of the season had reached the giddy heights of 9th.
From then on however, things went from bad to worse, and Volga won just one game after the end of October, by which time things were too late. Relegation by eight points was comfortable in the end, painful for the cub’s fans, who largely stayed away, and represent a big challenge if promotion is seriously on the cards for next year. They could struggle.
16th: Anzhi Makhachkala
Nobody predicted this in June. A summer which saw Kerimov’s billions splashed on some of the biggest names in Russian football then turnedsour, with everything from club in-fighting over wages, the owner’s health, and the international potash market blamed for his decision to cut back and start from scratch. Out went the stars, the international coaches, and all hope of a maiden championship.
What few expected was such spectacular failure. No win before the 19th game of the season and numerous defeats to fellow strugglers saw the Dagestani side rooted to the bottom of the table, and even the midseason recruitment of a few experienced heads – Dinyar Bilyaletdinov, Alexander Bukharov and Vladimir Bystrov – could not stop their season become a question of when, rather than if, their relegation would be confirmed.
The drop represents a watershed moment for the Anzhi ‘project.’ Some believe that, out of the spotlight, Kerimov is more likely to provide the investment – and not just in the first team – needed to take Anzhi back into the top flight and along their previous trajectory. Others see it as the death of a dream. Personally, I am optimistic for Anzhi’s future, but the road back will not be easy – they will be a marked club in the lower league, and will not have things their own way.