The second tier of Russian football is seen by many as a graveyard for football clubs. Teams who once graced the Premier League fail to adapt to life in the second tier, and often find themselves tumbling into a spiral of debt, poor performance, relegation and reform. In the last decade, numerous teams have fallen away into the regional leagues, only to get caught somewhere between local dominance and national struggle. It is rare that a positive story comes out.
Yet this season could be different. Recently MTA looked at Gazovik Orenburg’s surprise rise to the top of the pile and imminent promotion to the top tier, and the shock of seeing a club elevated purely on sporting grounds. The arrival of new clubs from the East, such as Sakhalin in the 2014/15 season and Baikal Irkutsk in the current campaign have added an element of surprise to proceedings – although it appears the stays of both will last a single season – and, for the first time in a long while, there are 20 teams who look ready to last the whole season without financial implosion.
Add to the list of good news to come out of Russia’s sporting graveyard Spartak-2 Moscow. It may seem strange to be heralding a Premier League club’s reserve side when talking about sporting performance and fairness, but with the season very much approaching the business end, Spartak-2 find themselves surprise contenders for a top four finish.
In any other circumstance, finishing third or fourth in the First Division would see a promotion play-off against their equivalent from the bottom of the Premier League, however it seems highly unlikely that the Russian Football Union would allow two teams from the same club to take part in their elite competition. Conflicts of interest would naturally abound, and even an organisation with a record as dubious as the RFU’s would surely not allow it to take place.
All of which is perhaps ironic, given that Spartak-2 were joined in the second tier by their counterparts from Zenit only by a controversial u-turn made in the dying moments of pre-season – a move many attributed to little more than Zenit’s ownership being able to grease the appropriate palms. Nevertheless, Spartak’s second string have earned their place in national competition on merit, finishing eight points clear at the top of the Second Divison West last season. If there is one fact the RFU can cling on to if they wish to allow Spartak-2 a seat at the top table, is that there are no doubts over their right to be there.
It may say a great deal about the playing level of Russia’s lower leagues that Spartak’s reserves can so easily find their way on the cusp of an historic achievement, but we should take nothing away from the performances of the current crop of players. Spartak have, after all, been entering a second team into the league system since Russia developed its own competitions in 1992, and yet this season is thew first they have made it to the second tier. Under manager Evgeni Bushmanov, Spartak’s famed youngsters have gone from strength to strength, and even if they don’t end up benefiting their parent club, could be an answer to the apparent talent drought that has forced national team manager Leonid Slutsky to turn to untried youngsters from his own CSKA club.
Consistency has been something which has plagued Spartak-2 over the course of the season – at no point have Bushmanov’s men won more than two games in succession – but the performances of individuals points to a regime which has been well instilled into the players. Top scorer Vladimir Obukhov is 24 and now unlikely to break through into the club’s first team, but has proven himself a capable scorer and focal point of the attack. Similarly, Aleksandr Zuev – a midfielder who made his full debut for Spartak at just 17 and graduate of the Chertanovo talent school – is enjoying a breakout season at 19, regularly finding himself among the goals ahead of older players such as Dmitri Kayumov and Aleksandr Kozlov.
Where manager Bushmanov has also enjoyed great success is in using Spartak’s more experienced players to help his young squad – the team’s average age hovers around the low 20s. First Division rules mean that once players have played more than a certain number of games for the senior side, they become ineligible for the second string, meaning Bushmanov has already lost the abilities of bright young goalkeeper Anton Mitryushkin, holding man Aleksandr Zotov and striking starlet Denis Davydov, now on loan at Czech side Mlada Boleslav. Yet with Sergei Pesyakov on the books as second-choice goalkeeper, Kirill Kombarov available in defence and veteran journeyman Dmitri Kudryashov around to lend a hand, the manager has allowed the voices of experience to shape the way his side plays – even if they aren’t the first names on the teamsheet.
What is particularly interesting is that Bushmanov, a former Spartak player himself and a renowned passer of the ball out from the back, has instilled a style of play which is more akin to the classic Spartak sides of the 1990s than anything seen either in the depths of the First Division or indeed at the new Otkritie Arena – much as Dmitri Alenichev may try. Quick passing and a possession-based game are often anathema to the slow long ball style often seen at provincial clubs around the country, and are clearly infusing a certain technical competency in a young group of players with real confidence – many of the Spartak-2 stars featured in Russia’s recent run to final of the UEFA U19 championships last summer.
How far this will ultimately affect Spartak’s senior team and their fans’ clamouring for instant success – despite nothing of the sort for over a decade – remains to be seen, and in many ways it would appear that the days of Spartak’s youth academy producing several first team players is over, thanks in part due to the modern tendency to buy ready-made rather than go homegrown. However, if Bushmanov is allowed to keep working with the youngsters, keeps drilling them in a more technical game, and gives them the confidence to go and express themselves on the field, other Russian clubs and indeed the country itself may end up benefitting. Before then, don’t be too surprised if the promotion of a reserve club to the Premier League suddenly comes onto the RFU’s agenda.