On Thursday, the Caspian port city of Astrakhan will briefly become the centre of Russian football as the national cup final is hosted at the city’s Tsentralnyi Stadium. Competing for the trophy are Lokomotiv Moscow – the second most successful team in the competition’s history with five titles and winners as recently as 2007 – and Kuban Krasnodar, who have never before progressed beyond the quarter-finals. With a Europa League berth also up for grabs, neither side will want to leave with the runners-up medals and, just like last year, here at MTA we’ve been having a look at the route taken by both sides to get to this stage.
Round of 32
Sibir Novosibirsk 1-3 Lokomotiv; Baltika Kaliningrad 1-2 Kuban
The organisers of Russia’s domestic cup competition enjoy an upset – a glance at last year’s competition shows as much – and set up their competition accordingly. Each top flight side entering in the round of 32 does so away to lower league opposition, ensuring a day to remember for the minnows and maximising the chance of an early cup shock.
Among the casualties this season were defending champions Rostov – humbled 3-0 by Second Division Syzran-2003 – Dinamo, Terek and Amkar, and Kuban almost joined them in falling at the first hurdle. Drawn away in the Baltic exclave of Kaliningrad, the southerners fell quickly behind before Bosnian defender Toni Sunjic grabbed the equaliser, and another member of the back line, Roman Bugaev, spared his side’s blushes with the winner 15 minutes from time. It was far from convincing, but they had escaped.
For Lokomotiv, things were somewhat different. Facing a mammoth trek of their own out to the Siberian capital, they took a first-half lead through Mbark Boussoufa and then consolidated it with strikes from full-back Vitali Denisov and then Omar Niasse. Mikhail Markosov grabbed a late consolation for Sibir, but the First Division club were no match for the club for the club from the capital, who put last year’s humiliating exit to Rotor Volgograd to one side in a comfortable victory.
Round of 16
Ufa 0-1 Lokomotiv; Kuban 3-0 Tosno
With the dust settled on the entry – and in some cases departure – of the Premier League clubs, those remaining began to take the cup a little more seriously in the round of 16. The Russian Cup may not be taken too seriously by many of the top clubs, but silverware is never to be sniffed at – particularly when just a handful of victories away.
After scraping through in Kaliningrad, Kuban were in dominant move as they welcomed high-flying First Division side Tosno – who famously ended Spartak’s run last season – to Krasnodar. With none of their stars afforded a rest against the promotion chasers, a perfect spell of three goals in 10 first-half minutes saw them comfortably into the next round. Ivelin Popov got things up and running before Ibrahima Balde’s brace, and in truth Tosno were never in the game against their most illustrious opponents.
By contrast, Lokomotiv were made to fight for their win against Igor Kolyvanov’s Ufa in Bashkortostan. Despite an early goal from Boussoufa, the hosts continued to make life difficult for Loko and were perhaps unfortunate not to at least level the tie. The visitors were pleased for the lack of extra time, and after a close-fought encounter booked their place in the quarter-finals.
Lokomotiv p0-0 Rubin Kazan; Kuban 1-0 Mordovia Saransk
in the quarter-finals, the remaining clubs begin to smell success. A number of big hitters – Zenit, Spartak and Krasnodar – had joined the list of eliminations in the previous round, and several of the Premier League’s lesser lights suddenly found themselves in with a chance. With First Division sides also hopeful, nothing could be taken for granted.
At Cherkizovo, Lokomotiv faced a tricky tie with a Rubin side in good form under Rinat Bilyaletdinov. The visitors fielded no less than seven Russians in their starting line-up – a rarity in a country where sides often use the bare minimum of domestic talent – and matched the Muscovites blow for blow throughout the 90 minutes. The hosts had more shots, but Rubin had their chances, and a draw seemed fair. Another 30 minutes saw no ground yielded, and in the end it was only penalties that would separate them – the hosts keeping their nerve and progressing to the last four.
Kuban also enjoyed home advantage against a team around them in the league table as they took on unfashionable Mordovia in Krasnodar. While the scoreline appeared close, Kuban produced a comparably dominant performance, limiting the visitors’ chances and creating several for themselves. Their shooting was wayward – with twice as many shots off target as on goal – but they needed to find the net just once, Sunjic again the hero as the Saransk side bowed out in the last eight.
Gazovik Orenburg 1-1p Lokomotiv; Kuban 1-0 CSKA Moscow
Down to the last four, and the cautious gambler would have been inclined to place their bets on and all-Moscow final. CSKA advanced to the semis alongside Loko, with the capital clubs facing off against Kuban and unfancied Gazovik respectively. With home advantage to Kuban, the Krasnodar club at least harboured hope of emulating their city rivals and making the showpiece final.
In the end that was how things panned out, dashing the hopes of an Moscow matchup to settle the trophy. For the second year in a row CSKA entered the semis as favourites to lift the trophy, only to be bundled out by a Krasnodar club. This time, despite having the majority of the play, the game’s single goal came from the experienced Portuguese forward Hugo Almedia – gifting Kuban a shot at their first ever Russian Cup title.
Elsewhere, Lokomotiv held up their end of the bargain – but only just. With a partisan home crowd behind them, second tier Gazovik took a sensational second half lead against the odds through Tajik international full-back Farhod Vasiev. Try as they might, Loko found themselves unable to find the breakthrough, and it was only in the 87th minute that the top flight side broke Gazovik hearts, levelling through Petar Skuletic. Extra time produced no goals, and as is so often the way, the bigger club came through in the shoot-out to deny the First Division club a famous first final.
Neither Lokomotiv nor Kuban have enjoyed the best of season, with the Muscovites changing managers twice and falling away from last season’s title challenge, and Kuban settling down in lower midtable despite harbouring hopes of Europe and building on last season. For Kuban boss Leonid Kuchuk, it will be a significant game for personal reasons – after impressing as Kuban boss, he was poached by Lokomotiv, led them to 3rd last year only to be dismissed early in the current campaign. Now back at Kuban – and according to some reports, only just after having a resignation refused just weeks ago – he has the chance to get one over his old side in their biggest ever meeting.
Given both club’s paths to the final – low-scoring games when facing top flight opposition – and the very nature of the game, it is unlikely to be a high-scoring affair. Much could depend on which side is prepared to take the bigger risks, while Mbark Boussoufa and Ivelin Popov could hold the creative keys for their respective sides. Expect few goals, two teams looking to play on the counter, and a narrow win for Lokomotiv as Kuban fail to break out of a poor run of form.