Unravelling the enigma of football in the post-Soviet republics
It's been a fascinating year in the former Soviet Union, as our Iron Curtain-twitcher Mark Gilbey reports...
This time last year, a bare-chested Luciano Spalletti was trotting around an icy Petrovsky Stadion in jubilation after leading Zenit St Petersburg to their second Premier League title since the fragmentation of the Soviet Union. And they're top now, too. But the Italian has kept his shirt on, for this is a transitional season in RUSSIA.
From next year the championship will ditch its traditional summer calendar and fall into line with the major European leagues by adopting an “autumn-spring” system. The corollary is an additional 14 rounds tacked on to the end of the regular 30-game season.
Over the summer CSKA Moscow held a seven-point advantage over Zenit, but now trail by six and there were question marks over the future of the club’s coach Leonid Slutsky. He has, though, redeemed himself somewhat by taking the Army Men into the knockout stages of the Champions League.
They qualified with Zenit, so that means there will be two Russian sides playing Champions League football after Christmas for the first time. Only Lionel Messi and Mario Gómez scored more than Seydou Doumbia in the group stages. He has been nothing short of prolific for CSKA this season, netting five goals in five Champions League games to add to the 24 the Ivorian has domestically.
Dan Petrescu also deserves a mention. His newly-promoted Kuban Krasnodar are ensconced in the top half of the table after being something of a yo-yo side these past few years. Defensively they have been frugal, but Petrescu has his own hot-shot Ivorian striker banging in the goals at the other end. Lanky Lacina Traoré has 15 to his name in the 21-year-old’s debut season to make him one of the league’s top newcomers.
It has also been a memorable year for football in the restive north Caucasus. In January an ambitious Terek Grozny provided an early shock to 2011 with the managerial appointment of Ruud Gullit, who was set the target of taking the Chechens into Europe. Terek moved into a new stadium in Grozny and several big names were linked with the club, but the Dutchman’s reign was a dismal one and Gullit was sacked after just 13 games.
Their neighbours in Dagestan have made a far better fist of challenging the established order. In the space of a year Anzhi Makhachkala have gone from being almost unknown outside of Russia to the name on everybody’s lips. Barely a day passes without them being linked to a high-profile signing.
The club’s wealthy owner Suleiman Kerimov has bankrolled the creation of a new side that includes Roberto Carlos, Yuri Zhirkov, Balázs Dzsudzsák and Mbark Boussoufa, but the capture of Samuel Eto’o really announced their arrival on the world stage. Anzhi finish 2011 in seventh with 12 rounds remaining.
How bottom side Tom Tomsk would like a few roubles from Eto’o’s mind-boggling wage package. Financial problems and the loss of their experienced coach Valeri Nepomniachi for health reasons have the seen the fortunes of the league’s easternmost side head south since the summer. The Siberians even went 12 games and over 1,000 minutes without scoring a goal.
Over the border in UKRAINE the league begins its winter hibernation with an unbeaten Dynamo Kyiv holding a slender one-point advantage over their arch-rivals and reigning champions Shakhtar Donetsk.
Success domestically has been tempered by poor showings in Europe for both. Once again Dynamo failed to navigate their way out of the Champions League qualifying rounds and last week exited the Europa League.
It was worse for Shakhtar. The Pitmen were expected to kick on after last year’s exploits in the Champions League – not least because Mircea Lucescu was able to retain his star players – but they finished bottom of their group and didn’t pick up a win until a dead-rubber on matchday six against APOEL Nicosia.
Their departure leaves just Metalist Kharkiv flying the flag for Ukraine in Europe. And after just one defeat in the league, Myron Markevich’s side are by no means out of finishing in the top two when things pick up again in March. Maybe, just maybe, they can go one better after five successive seasons as bronze medallists.
Juande Ramos’ Dnipro Dnipropetrovsk are 14 points off the pace following an inconsistent start to the campaign. The Spaniard was rumoured to be for the chop; he survived, and Dnipro have been buoyed by the arrival of Nikola Kalinić from Blackburn Rovers who has scored nine times in 12 games to help fire them up the table.
April saw minnows Obolon Kyiv write their name in the history books by ending Shakhtar’s unbeaten record in Donetsk that stretched back to 2008. The Brewers operate on a shoestring budget and don’t have a single foreign player on their books, but triumphed 1-0 to inflict a first home defeat on Shakhtar in 56 matches.
Obolon also beat Shakhtar in Kyiv and took four points off Dynamo last season. This campaign points have been hard to come by. Kyiv’s third club are bottom of the table and didn’t pick up a win until round 17; by then Serhiy Kovalets had already lost his job.
The most successful ARMENIAN team of the post-Soviet era, Pyunik Yerevan, were denied an 11th successive league title by Ulisses Yerevan. Arguably the real story has been the performances of the national team this year though.
They emerged as the surprise package during qualifying for Euro 2012. Vardan Minasyan had his young side well-organised and playing some attractive football, and while defeat to the Republic of Ireland meant he was unable to take them to the play-offs, there are certainly grounds for optimism in Armenia. Shakhtar’s Henrik Mkhitaryan was voted the country’s player of 2011.
Giovanni Trapattoni’s Ireland overcame another improving former Soviet republic to reach next summer’s finals: ESTONIA. Flora Tallinn retained their Meistriliiga title, while Trans Narva’s Latvian forward Aleksandrs Čekulajevs scored an incredible 46 goals.
He won’t mind that 18 of those came against the league’s whipping boys Ajax Lasnamäe. The Tallinn side won promotion last year, in no small part down to their coach Andrei Borissov, who left ahead of the new season for FC Infobet and things never got going for the amateurs.
Ajax failed to record a win all season. Along the way they picked up just four points, scored a paltry 11 goals and conceded an incredible 192 during 36 games. The squad lacked discipline after a poor start and picked up several red cards, while Betradar flagged a couple of matches as suspicious.
Key players departed and the side was replenished with several members of the youth team who play in the Teine Liiga, Estonia’s third tier. Even their president pitched in: Boriss Dugan took over coaching duties in the spring and the 51-year-old also pulled his boots on to make seven appearances as a player.
BATE Borisov confirmed themselves as BELARUS’ number one team by picking up their sixth consecutive league title; furthermore they reached the group stages of the Champions League. The club’s Brazilian-born Belarusian Renan Bressan also underlined his credentials as the division’s best player.
Dinamo Minsk bid farewell to their manager. Again. Sergei Ovchinnikov exits and is replaced by Aleksandr Sednev, who becomes Dinamo’s 25th coach in 12 years.
There was a change at the top in MOLDOVA as Sheriff Tiraspol were unable to take an 11th consecutive Divizia Naţională title after being ousted by Dacia Chişinău, Rohan Ricketts’ former side.
Another pioneering Briton abroad, John Gregory, popped up in KAZAKHSTAN to take charge of fallen giants Kairat Almaty over the summer. The former Queens Park Rangers and Aston Villa manager was unable to save them from relegation on the final day though.
The AZERBAIJAN dream is also over for Tony Adams after 18 months with Qäbälä. They finished last season in midtable and as we approach the winter break Qäbälä are sixth in the 12-team championship. There was that long unbeaten run in the previous campaign – and they did keep 21 clean sheets from 32 matches – but it would be erroneous to consider Adams’ time in Azerbaijan an overwhelming success.
UZBEKISTAN midfielder Server Djeparov was voted Asia’s player of the year for the second time in his career. The central Asian republic are also through to the fourth qualifying round of the 2014 World Cup.
Ex-Southampton striker Marian Pahars began his first steps into management in his native LATVIA by taking the reigns of another of his former clubs, Skonto Riga. The 35-year-old guided Skonto to fourth.
Temuri Ketsbaia didn’t take GEORGIA to Euro 2012, although they did beat Croatia at home during the qualifying stages and finish the year at 73th in the FIFA world rankings, 52 places higher than when the ex-Newcastle United midfielder took over in November 2009.
And finally, Ekranas once again made a clean sweep of the trophies in LITHUANIA. Valdas Urbonas’ team won the A Lyga, Lithuanian Cup and Super Cup for the second year running.
Football in the former Soviet Union is much intersting. You mentioned only statistics, with out any interesting stories
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