Unravelling the enigma of football in the post-Soviet republics
Huzzah! The Russian Premier League is back – bigger and, hopefully, better than ever before.
The bumper 44-game transitional season that ushers in a controversial calendar shift from Russia’s traditional summer schedule to an “autumn-spring” system more akin to the major western European leagues begins tomorrow.
Sixteen clubs will contest a 30-match regular season, where after the table splits in half for teams to resolve the title/European places and relegation issues.
You know the names: Ruud Gullit, Dan Petrescu, Roberto Carlos, Aiden McGeady and, er, Andriy Voronin. And the clubs, too. Zenit St Petersburg, Rubin Kazan and the Moscow teams will all have a say in matters at the top, but Terek Grozny and Anzhi Makhachkala both have big ambitions, backed up by big money.
Joining Never Mind the Bolsheviks to cast their expert eyes over things are Daniel Darby, Domm Norris and James Appell, who’ve come to offer their opinions on the 16 clubs competing in the Premier League this season.
AMKAR PERMJames: Amkar will want to draw a line under last season, in which the club survived in the Premier League by the skin of their teeth and almost suffered financial collapse. Unfortunately, despite coming under new private ownership, Amkar continue to walk an economic tightrope – a fact reflected in their very modest dealings in the winter transfer market.
In have come Bosnian defender Samir Merzić and Serbian midfielder Predrag Mijić, joining the likes of Bulgarians Georgi Peev and Zahari Sirakov, Macedonian Stevica Ristić and Montenegrin Mitar Novakovic in a kind of Perm-based Balkan love-in. But none of these players are big names, even by Russian Premier League standards – and the loss of their one talisman, striker Martin Kushev (another Bulgarian, incidentally), leaves Amkar possibly even weaker than last season. Relegation appears to beckon.
ANZHI MAKHACHKALADomm: It's difficult to know where to start to assess the progress of Anzhi Makhachkala. Here is a club who have firmly placed themselves in the 'nouveau riche' section of Russian football as the wealth of their new owner Suleyman Kerimov looks to throw them into the upper echelons of the Premier League.
Their significant economic gains have thrust Anzhi to the fore in the transfer market. The likes of Roberto Carlos, Jucilei and João Carlos have been enticed into moving to southern Russia in big-money moves which would have been near-impossible without Kermimov's financial clout.
The Brazilian influence in Makhachkala shows no signs of slowing as Atletico Mineiro’s prolific forward Diego Tardelli has also swapped South America for eastern Europe in a move that could be just as strong a statement of intent as the signing of Roberto Carlos. Mbark Boussoufa, the Moroccan, also arrived just as it seemed he would be signing up for Terek Grozny.
But with fresh faces earning vast sums of money comes the issue of squad unity and togetherness. Gadzhi Gadzhiev is the man tasked with ensuring Anzhi turn their star-studded team sheet into tangible performances – which is hoped will see them push for a place in Europe. Considering the money that has been spent, qualification for the Europa League will likely be the target.
Gadzhiev, while an extremely experienced coach, remains an unknown entity when it comes to heading a club pushing for the upper reaches of the table, as spells with Saturn Moskovskaya Oblast and Krylya Sovetov Samara in recent times testify. Gadzhiev and Kerimov's connection to Dagestan provides mutual respect between the two, but it wouldn't be surprising to see a different man in charge come the end of season if results take an unwanted downturn.
CSKA MOSKVADaniel: It was a case of too much, too little, too late for CSKA last year, and the big summer acquisitions only came when runaway leaders Zenit already had one hand on the trophy. How different things might have turned out had Vágner Love, Seydou Doumbia and Zoran Tošić rocked up in Moscow at the beginning rather than the middle of the campaign...
Additions this winter have been modest in comparison. The signing of centre-back Viktor Vasin on the back of a fine season at Spartak Nalchik allowed one to momentarily ruminate that someone might finally, heaven forbid, be set to challenge the CSKA central-defensive duopoly of Vasili Berezutsky and Sergei Ignashevich. But before you could say “Russian international call-up”, Vasin had torn cruciate knee ligaments in one of his very first training sessions, ruling him out until the summer at the earliest, and it was as you were.
The other arrival is that of Latvian international winger Aleksandrs Cauņa on loan from Skonto Riga. He too managed to injure himself in the build up to the new season, and even so, given the abundance of talent on the CSKA flanks, it’s difficult to see Cauņa as anything more than a back-up.CSKA certainly look the best equipped side to challenge Zenit’s dominance of last season, but certain questions linger: can they keep hold of Doumbia and Keisuke Honda? How long before Vágner Love’s next sulk? Will Alan Dzagoev ever recapture his promise of a few years ago?
One change that has been welcomed is the sensible decision to relocate most home games to the Luzhniki, meaning fans no longer have to traipse their way north to traffic-clogged Khimki to see their heroes in action. Attendances look set to rise as a result, and CSKA will need all the support they can muster if they are to become the first Moscow club to lift the title since 2006.
DINAMO MOSKVA James: Dinamo deserve some credit for sticking with coach Miodrag Božović, despite a disappointing 2010 season in which the club failed to meet the expectations of the club hierarchy in finishing outside the top five.
Instead of dispensing with the vampish Montenegrin, they've handed him the chequebook this winter, which he has used to good effect in purchasing highly-rated playmaker Zvjezdan Misimović from Galatasaray. If Misimović settles and forms an understanding with the club's other star forwards, Kevin Kurányi and Andriy Voronin, he could prove an inspired signing.
The coming season also promises to be an interesting one between the sticks for Dinamo. Blessed with two of Russia's best goalkeepers – established Russia international Vladimir Gabulov and prodigiously talented Anton Shunin – Božović must decide who his No.1 will be. If he plays all of his cards right, a Europa League spot is a realistic prospect.
KRASNODAR NMTB: Krasnodar are an interesting addition to the Premier League this season. They don’t have an illustrious past, a huge fanbase or even a stadium of their own to put them in. Indeed, Krasnodar finished fifth in Russia’s second tier in 2010, and only wangled promotion via the demise of Saturn Moskovskaya Oblast. But they are privately owned, which the Premier League quite likes, and with the wealth of chairman Sergey Galitsky, the club are unlikely to experience the financial problems besetting some teams in Russia.
Founded in 2007, ambitious Krasnodar have Premier League standard facilities. They’ve also been busy boys in the transfer market to try and ensure that, although they came in through the backdoor, Krasnodar can become an established side in the top flight. The main problem in the First Division last year was the defence. Krasnodar conceded 44 times in the 2010 season; that’s just one fewer than the other two promoted sides (Kuban Krasnodar and Volga Nizhny Novgorod) combined.
A backline of Aleksandr Amisulashvili, Dušan Anđelković, plus Nemanja Tubić, signed from Karpaty Lviv, and Ognjen Vranješ should be more resolute in the Premier League. Vranješ has been playing in Moldova this season for Sheriff Tiraspol, and is joined by another from the Divisia Naţională champions in Aleksandr Erokhin, a talented Russian midfielder.
Yura Movsisyan, the 23-year-old Armenian forward arriving from Randers could be a good piece of business and Nikola Drinčić will be looking to get his career back on track after transferring from Spartak Moskva where he suffered a broken leg.
KRYLYA SOVETOV SAMARADaniel: Krylya Sovetov translates into English as ‘Wings of the Soviets’, and pre-season preparations have certainly taken off compared with this time last year, when massive debts and a transfer embargo not only threatened Krylya’s Premier League status, but the club’s very existence. Coach Aleksandr Tarkhanov, back in charge for a third time as of last summer, did a grand job of turning the tables and successfully steered Krylya through a squeaky-bum relegation battle. The worst of the club’s problems now appear to be behind them, although acting president Viktor Razveev’s assertion that Krylya’s debts are now fully cleared may best be taken with a pinch of salt.
On the pitch, Krylya have added Slovenian international Nejc Pecnik to their attack. The former Nacional front man has a nerve – it was his away goal at the Luzhniki in November 2009 that signalled the beginning of the end of Russia’s 2010 World Cup qualification hopes. On the subject of South Africa, England fans may also recall Algerian goalkeeper Rais M’Bohli. He was between the sticks that night in Cape Town when the Desert Foxes held Fabio Capello’s men to a tepid goalless draw, and replaces Chilean custodian Eduardo Lobos, who returns to his homeland after six years in Samara.
Other winter additions include Sibir Novosibirsk left-back Dmitri Molosh, who achieved cult status last season for some outrageous long-range goals such as the one below, and promising Russian U21 international centre-back Basel Abdulfattakh, who joins having found limited opportunities at Zenit St Petersburg.
Notable departures include attacking midfielders Oleg Ivanov and Pavel Yakovlev, the latter returning to Spartak Moskva following a successful loan spell. These losses leave Krylya short of enterprise going forward, and Tarkhanov’s hopes of challenging for a European position appear a little premature. It’s difficult to see beyond a season ensconced in mid-table – which, compared with the chaos and uncertainty of last season, would suit them just fine.
KUBAN KRASNODARNMTB: Dan Petrescu brings Russia’s yo-yo club back into the Premier League at the first time of asking, and it would very much enhance his reputation if he could establish Kuban in the top flight. Recruiting the lanky Lacina Traoré, who’d been linked with several top clubs, will surely go some way to achieving this. Suitors in western Europe will be keeping a very close eye on the fortunes of both the Ivorian forward and his manager over the coming season.
Champions of the First Division in 2010, key to their success was a tight defence. Kuban conceded just 20 goals in 38 league games last season and Petrescu has bolstered the backline with the signing of Zelão from Saturn, and the Uruguayan Mauricio Prieto. It’s a solid base for Kuban to build upon.
David Tsorayev in midfield is a good addition too, and Petrescu knows the winger/forward Dacian Varga from his time at Unirea Urziceni in Romania. Up front, Traoré will lead the line, with several options for a partner, and they look well equipped to stay in the league this time round.
LOKOMOTIV MOSKVA Domm: It's been a case of out with the old and in with the new as far as Lokomotiv Moskva have been concerned. The club's legendary coach Yuri Semin – the man who famously broke Spartak Moskva's stranglehold on the league – has departed for Dynamo Kyiv and in his place has come Yuri Krasnozhan from Spartak Nalchik.
The change has ultimately resulted in the acrimonious departure of Oleksandr Aliyev – a player whose single season in Russia was a huge success on the field. His departure was a blow to Lokomotiv but hardly unexpected, as his desire to follow Semin back to Kyiv was verbally thrown about by all the parties involved.
They’ve purchased smartly and in a manner that hasn’t exceeded their means over the winter, which has somewhat drifted under the radar as the likes of Anzhi and Terek Grozny have stolen the headlines. However former Hajduk Split captain Senijad Ibričić is a dressing-room leader capable of replacing Aliyev's goals. Krasnozhan has also signed Aleksandr Marenich and Anton Amelchenko.
One issue that could potentially hinder their progress the size of their squad during a season that will continue for around 18 months; such strains will only become apparent later, but it must surely be a worry. Another has been Lokomotiv's failure to capture another centre forward, with attempts to sign Ciprian Marica and Sercan Yildrim baring few fruits.
Krasnozhan's ability to get teams punching above their weight – as seen with Spartak Nalchik last season – could see Lokomotiv battling for a Champions League place, but realistically comfortably qualifying for the Europa League would be a more attainable goal. Lokomotiv may well finish behind their fellow Moscow rivals, but the Railwaymen are gradually laying the building blocks of future success.
ROSTOVDaniel: You’d forgive Rostov coach Oleh Protasov for getting the hump with this pre-season malarkey. No sooner has the curtain drawn on a Premier League campaign than your carefully assembled squad disperses, leaving you starting from scratch. Well, maybe not completely from scratch, but the list of departures from Rostov this winter runs as long as your arm.
Most notable are goalkeeper Anton Amelchenko, whose reward for a fine season looks to be a place on the bench at Lokomotiv Moskva; veteran midfielder Aleksandr Kulchy, who heads for a top flight swansong with newly-promoted Krasnodar; and wide man Igor Lebedenko, who adds to the list of baffling signings at former champions Rubin Kazan. Even North Korean Hong Yong-Jo has jumped ship, although nobody really noticed considering he spent most of last season in the treatment room and mysteriously disappearing for a month following his country’s ignominious World Cup exit.
The good news is that former striker Dmitri Kirichenko returns to the club after 10 years away. Now 34, Kirichenko has one of the finest strike rates in Russia with 140 goals to his name to date; with Roman Adamov having extended his loan spell from Rubin for another year, Rostov fans can have cause for optimism in front of goal this season. Also among the new arrivals are Dinamo Moskva duo Aleksei Rebko and Edgaras Cesnauskis, Slovak World Cup defender Kornel Salata and Zenit youth product Aleksandr Khokhlov, who, with just a handful of competitive games to his name, is set to become the club’s first-choice left-back.
All in all it was a funny old season at Rostov last year. They started well and flirted with the European places before a spectacular collapse in the final third of the season saw them drop to ninth in the final standings. They were involved in that match against Amkar Perm, and were gloriously inconsistent at times (their home record included wins over mighty CSKA and Spartak, but defeats to relegated Alania and Sibir). It’s probably fair to say that more unpredictability can be expected again this year.
RUBIN KAZANDomm: You wouldn't expect to be able to so easily write off a team who’ve only just lost their two-year grip on the Premier League trophy, but for Rubin Kazan this is a worrying reality. There are deficiencies within their overall style of play that ultimately threaten to cause in a period of destabilisation – whereby the fortunes of the club dwindle and thus the success of the recent past becomes a nostalgic memory.
Rubin's lack of a cutting edge is the most significant concern on the field. During their successful retention of the Premier League title in 2009 there was a great sense of excitement surrounding their progress, as Alejandro Dominguez and Aleksandr Bukharov regularly found the back of the net. Now, however, the club's greatest goal threat comes from Ecuadorian midfielder Christian Noboa – Rubin’s top scorer last season with eight goals, despite the arrival of players like Obafemi Martins. It's little surprise they struggled to immediately replace Dominguez and Bukharov – who joined Valencia and Zenit St Petersburg respectively – but the winter months have seen only Igor Lebedenko and 18-year-old Walter Chala arrive to fill the void.
Rubin will remain difficult to break down as long as their proud defensive organisation remains intact, but their inevitable struggle up the other end could well cost them a Champions League place.
SPARTAK MOSKVAJames: For most British-based fans, Aiden McGeady is Spartak's most important player. Eight months after his £9 million transfer from Celtic, the view is increasingly applied to Spartak fans too: the Irish international winger has rapidly established himself as one of the Moscow club's leading lights. On the field he has produced consistent quality – so much so that Zenit have been rumoured to be preparing a big bid for him – while off it he has charmed the Russian public and media.
Meanwhile coach Valery Karpin did his own standing among Spartak fans no harm at all by inviting the club's goalscoring legend Andrey Tikhonov to become a coach during the off-season. That neat PR move, the addition of Estudiantes centre-half Marcos Rojo and the return from loan of youngsters Pavel Yakovlev and Artem Dzyuba ought to stand Spartak in good stead for a run at the Champions League spots.
SPARTAK NALCHIKDomm: Last season Spartak Nalchik were the great over-achievers. It looked like they would finish in the Europa League spots, but lost out to Lokomotiv Moskva in the closing stages as results turned against them.
The successes of 2010 could ultimately cost Spartak Nalchik dear, as a significant proportion of influential figures have departed. Gone is their manager Yuri Krasnozhan (to Lokomotiv Moskva), Viktor Vasin (CSKA Moskva) and Vladimir Dyadyun, who's returned to his parent club Rubin Kazan. Nalchik moved quickly to replace Krasnozhan with Vladimir Eshtrekov and they’ve been forced to delve deep into the transfer market despite their lack of private investment.
They need to focus upon remaining clear of a relegation battle as the possibility of becoming a one-season wonder looms large: fans hopeful of replicating last season's campaign should note the detrimental and destabilising effect of losing their coach and key players.
Nalchik have made some smart moves in the transfer market, particularly the Serbian youngster Adnan Zahirović, who looks to have a promising future in Russia, although signings like Aleksandr Salugin and Igor Portnyagin seem more in hope than expectation of success. Nalchik's main problem will be the age-old one of scoring goals: do they have players who can be relied to upon to regularly find the back of the net?
Accompanied by an added sense of defensive frailty, Nalchik could be in for a tough old season.
TEREK GROZNYNMTB: Ruud Gullit’s arrival in Chechnya came out of the blue, even after the debacle surrounding Victor Muñoz’s departure so soon after the shock announcement that the Spaniard would be taking charge in Grozny. Bulat Chagaev’s cash is going to make it very interesting for Terek this season.
There was talk of an English-based player “among the top ten strikers in the world” joining Gullit – who, although not having a great record as a coach, is a big name in football. Diego Forlan was mentioned this week. Beanpole Zimbabwean Musawengosi Mguni isn’t quite at that level, but he evidently impressed Gullit in a friendly against Metalurh Donetsk recently and joins up with the squad.
Aleksandr Pavlenko will be a decent purchase from Spartak Moskva, but the marquee signing of this new era for the Chechens, midfielder Mbark Boussoufa of Anderlecht, fell through, and he instead signed for Anzhi.
Terek have some decent players and started the 2010 season reasonably well but fell away in the second half, finishing 12th. That won’t be good enough for club and Chechen president Ramzan Kadyrov with Gullit’s arrival and the investment that’s been made: this season's target is a European spot.
Luciano Spalletti hit the ground running upon his arrival, although it's very difficult for foreign managers to come to Russia and succeed – they have to understand the country and its football, so it will be interesting to see how Gullit fares in Grozny. It shan’t be dull, you can bet that.
TOM TOMSKJames: Tom coach Valery Nepomnyashchy – whose surname transliterates as "oblivious" – is patently aware of the financial limitations of his side, and has spent the winter scouting free agents and loan deals. In have come loanees – Spartak goalkeeper Sergey Pesyakov, Zenit strikers Maksim Kanunnikov and Evgeny Starikov and Rubin defender Evgeny Balyaykin – while former Spartak men Nikita Bazhenov and Renat Sabitov, plus ex-Saturn goalkeeper Aleksey Botvinev, arrive on permanent transfers.
The sheer number of new arrivals reflects the problems the Tomsk club faces. Perennial mid-tablers based on the unglamorous Siberian steppe, they invariably see any player who makes a success of themselves at Tom – and there have been many, including most recently Blackpool's on-loan striker Sergey Kornilenko – move onto bigger and better things. But Nepomnyashchy is wily enough to get the best out of his new arrivals. Another season of comfortably surviving looks in prospect.
VOLGA NIZHNY NOVGORODNMTB: Promoted to the Premier League, Volga Nizhny Novgorod finished runners-up to Kuban in the First Division last year, a point ahead of their city rivals Nizhny Novgorod. The league’s top scorers, Volga also boasted the second tightest defence – but it won’t be easy for them in Russia’s top flight.
What they do have is a good young manager in Omari Tetradze, and the Georgian has been very busy in the transfer market in an attempt to gain a foothold in the division. President Aleksei Goikhman has set Tetradze the target of establishing the club in the Premier League, which he may just do, but it could depend on just how quickly this newly assembled squad gels.
Tetradze’s fellow Georgian Gogita Gogua will give them experience, along with several other new signings, including Mersudin Ahmetović, Ruslan Adzhindzhal, Leiton and Miklós Gaál. Lasha Salukvadze, signed from Rubin Kazan in the off season, is another notable arrival. Celtic fans will also be familiar with Marc Crosas, who wasn't a regular under Neil Lennon but will become a permanent fixture in the Volga team, where the Spaniard will pick up some crucial playing time.
ZENIT ST PETERSBURGDaniel: These are good times to be a Zenit St Petersburg fan. Victory over bitter rivals CSKA Moskva in the Super Cup last Sunday saw Luciano Spalletti’s side complete a quick-fire hat-trick of domestic trophies that rounded off a thoroughly successful first year in charge for the Italian. Alas, the one blot on Spalletti’s record to date is the Champions League play-off exit to Auxerre last August, but his side partially redeemed themselves by steamrolling their way through the resulting Europa League group. Zenit face Rubin Kazan’s conquerors Twente in the Round of 16, and there is real excitement in St Petersburg at the prospect of a second European triumph to add to their 2008 UEFA Cup success.
Not surprisingly, Spalletti’s exploits in Russia have led to continued speculation about his future. No sooner has the axe been wielded on yet another Serie A coach than the Italian is forced to wearily repeat that his heart for now is in St Petersburg. Just as inevitable has been the constant stream of transfer links flowing up and down the Neva this winter. The rumour mill has been operating to full capacity, and the likes of Andrei Arshavin, Eric Abidal and Aiden McGeady are just some of those to have been linked with a move to the Petrovsky.
It's perhaps surprising then that Zenit are yet to complete an incoming transfer this winter, although they are on the verge of securing the loan signing of Chilean U21 international midfielder Nicolás Peñailillo. As for the outgoing players, Spalletti’s compatriot Alessandro Rosina has been loaned to Cesena, defender Ivica Krizanac left when his contract expired, perpetual loanee Sergei Kornilenko barely had time to set foot in St Petersburg en route from Rubin to Blackpool, and striking starlet Maksim Kanunnikov has been sent on a season-long arenda to Tom Tomsk.
That presently leaves Zenit with a thinner squad than last season, and concerns about the depth to the side have grown as the injuries pile up. Vladimir Bystrov is ruled out until the summer, Nico Lombaerts and Sergei Semak will miss the opening month of the season, and Tomas Hubocan, Aleksandr Kerzhakov and Aleksandr Bukharov are all doubts for the season opener away to Terek Grozny on Sunday. Nevertheless, Zenit have been quick to pick up where they left off last season and remain very much the team to beat in Russia, although a better-prepared CSKA side this time around will make for a closer title race.
But a word of warning to you, Signor Spalletti. UEFA Cup success under Dick Advocaat in 2008 came at a price, with the all-out European pursuit wreaking havoc on a domestic campaign that eventually saw Zenit finish a lowly fifth.
Your guest experts:
Daniel Darby was previously head of the Press Association’s football coverage in Russia and now works as an analyst in the betting industry. He supports Mansfield Town and possibly spends more time than is healthy confined to his west London flat watching grainy coverage of football matches involving Artem Dzyuba.
Domm Norris is the creator and editor of the excellent Football Globe blog. He also contributes to Backpage Football and In Bed with Maradona.
James Appell is a freelance journalist and blogs regularly over at the Football Ramble and ITV.com. By his own admission, he is a sports-obsessive Russophile northerner with a soft spot for Spartak Moskva. Take a read of his blog, The Cynical Challenge; you’ll probably really like it.
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