Russian Premier League 2013-14 winter review: 5 surprises, and 5 less surprising things…

The winter break in the Russian Premier League is upon us: with games not scheduled for three months, the pause gives an opportunity to reflect on the surprising and less surprising elements of the season so far:

The surprises

1) Fire sale at Anzhi Makhachkala – and they’re bottom of the league

Anzhi Makhachkala started this 2013-14 season with Guus Hiddink season signings added to the expectation that they’d challenge Zenit St. Petersburg and CSKA Moscow for the title.

However, within weeks Hiddink had resigned, there were rumours of players fighting, and a home loss to FC Rostov led to owner Suleiman Kerimov announcing Anzhi would change direction with immediate effect. Within weeks almost all the expensive signings were gone – including €19 signing Aleksandr Kokorin, who didn’t play a competitive game before being sold back to Dinamo Moscow. Anzhi are now bottom of the league and without a win, their side largely made up of loan signings and young prospects.

So why the sudden change in direction? Some put it down to Kerimov needing to tighten his belt after a company in which he is a major shareholder lost 25% of its value on the stock market; other reports from within the club said the Rostov defeat had made him ill. What seems certain is that though Kerimov’s intentions were good in wanting to create a strong club for his home region, his lack of football knowledge let him down. Rather than building a squad he bought a series of big-name stars – who ended up failing to become a team.

2) Lokomotiv Moscow are top equal with Zenit

Around the turn of the century Lokomotiv Moscow were one of Russia’s top teams: league titles in 2002 and 2004 cemented this. But since Yuriy Semin’s departure as coach in 2005 the club have been an average side, clinging onto the coat-tails of the Europa League places. Those eight years have seen thirteen different head coaches, including a return for Semin, but now they finally seem to have the right man. Leonid Kuchuk does not have a sparkling track record, but his side have only lost three times and have conceded fewer goals than any of their title rivals. Lokomotiv, with a smaller budget than the very biggest clubs, seem to spend wisely (including two recent good signings from Anzhi: Mbark Boussoufa and Lassana Diarra). They also have a record of getting the best out of Russian players – one who’s really come along during recent seasons is Aleksandr Samedov.

There is no clear title favourite in 13-14 – main rivals Spartak and Zenit both have their weaknesses – and Lokomotiv seem a more stable side than the others. They may well be back in the Champions League in 14-15: possibly as Russian champions.

3) Rubin Kazan’ in decline – and their manager of twelve years fired

That Rubin Kazan’ go into the winter break in eleventh place, level on points with Krilya Sovietov and below Rostov and Amkar, is almost as much of a surprise as what has happened at Anzhi. As recently as 1995, Rubin were finishing in the lower reaches of Russia’s third tier (and lowest professional league), but made quick progress over the next eight years and went on to win the Premier League in 2008 and 2009 under Kurban Berdyev. 2009 also saw a famous away victory over Barcelona in the Champions’ League, and that year could have been the club’s high water mark.

The club is by and large run pragmatically – their foreign signings are never the big splashes seen further to the west in Russia, but they pick up effective players who stay put (like Gökdeniz Karadeniz, who scored the second goal in the Barcelona victory). Russian signings are similarly low-key, but Berdyev has brought on players rejected elsewhere (like Alan Kasayev), and lengthened the top level career of others such as Roman Sharonov. But with the club’s league finishes disappointing since 2010 and expectations higher than ever, it could be that the manager has taken Rubin as far as he can. It is the timing of the sacking that caught many by surprise rather than the circumstances, but the winter break provides a lengthy pause in which to find the right manager.

Berdyev himself is still young enough for another big challenge, and is considered by many in the region as an excellent tactician: Dinamo Kyiv, shaky for several seasons, have already been suggested as his next club.

4) Vyacheslav Malafeev isn’t Zenit’s number one keeper – but nobody’s noticing

Goalkeeper Vyacheslev Malafeev is a one-club man, and has been a more or less constant presence in the Zenit side since 2001. Other keepers, including a couple of regular internationals, have been seen off without much trouble.

Until this season, that is. In what is in my opinion the best signing of the season, Zenit picked up Russian-Greek keeper Yuriy Lodygin from the relative obscurity of Skoda Xanthi. An injury to Malafeev meant Lodygin getting an instant chance to impress: he has been ever-present since, and despite being only 23 has looked assured both in league and Champions League matches. Lodygin has since made his international debut for Russia, having refused the opportunity to play for Greece, and at present looks the most likely successor to Igor Akinfeev in the national side.

Malafeev has quickly been forgotten; he would unlikely win his place back were he fully fit. A year ago the thought of him unfit and never playing for Zenit again would have caused alarm. But no player is truly irreplaceable – even a Zenit old boy…

5) The mystery of Fyodor Smolov

A forward with four goals in around ninety appearances at club level would not normally make his country’s national squad: but Dinamo Moscow’s Fyodor Smolov is always picked for Fabio Capello’s Russia. A small Russian top flight and generous limit on non-Russian players does mean that Capello is limited in terms of his national team options – and he should be given credit for going with younger players rather than back to Andrey Arshavin or Roman Pavlyuchenko – but many remain confused by the persistence with Smolov rather than another prospect with a better scoring record.

In this close season there have been suggestions of Smolov moving on loan to relegation-threatened Ural, having provided just one assist and no goals from fourteen Dinamo outings this season. Previous loans (to Feyenoord and Anzhi) brought more experience but just one goal. Smolov is now 23; soon he will stop being considered a prospect and instead a player not good enough to make the grade. A good second half of 2013-14 followed by involvement in the World Cup would mean the slow start is forgotten: nobody remembers much about Arshavin’s relatively late fulfilment of his true potential. But the warning signs are there: plenty of others (Aleksandr Danishevskiy, Alexandr Prudnikov and Ruslan Pimenov to name three) have faded away after promising early careers.

And the less surprising

1) Pitches not up to scratch

A few months ago I wrote a piece for the When Saturday Comes website on the lack of pitches in Moscow: reconstruction work at three of the city’s stadiums and heavy rain led to the two remaining natural pitches not being able to cope with the fixtures of Moscow’s four big sides. The result was Dinamo Moscow taking up semi-permanent residence on the synthetic pitch of a second division side, a CSKA Champions League game being staged in St. Petersburg, a Moscow derby taking place on a training pitch and Spartak fans forced to travel over 800 miles to Ekaterinburg for a ‘home’ match.

The weather always affects the quality of pitches – my personal favourite is watching a Zenit-Dinamo tie around ten years ago on a pitch that looked like a speedway track – but what added to the chaos this year was the bureaucratic cock-up of having three stadiums in the capital closed at the same time. Traditionally Russia’s football pitches are at their worst in March, so there are likely to be more problems and not only in the capital, and some will breathe a sigh of relief that both CSKA and Spartak exited Europe early.

2) Racism reported at matches

There were few surprises when racism was reported at games in Russia. As well as the monkey chants allegedly directed at Yaya Toure by some CSKA fans, there were also reports of pro ethnic Russian chanting at an Anzhi Makhachkala game held near Moscow and a swastika flag raised by Spartak fans during a cup match. This was apparently a reaction to what Yaya Toure had accused CSKA fans of.

If there was widespread condemnation in Russia of the flag incident, then reactions to the other issues were differing. Pro ethnic Russian chanting gets little coverage when it happens – and has been answered at least once in the Caucasus by anti-ethnic Russian chanting. The relatively regular incidents of monkey chanting are explained away in a variety of odd ways: they’re a figment of people’s imaginations; they’re just a means of putting an opponent off; they’re wrong if directed at great players like Toure, but not so otherwise.

One important angle western media tends to ignore is the growing number of Russians uncomfortable with and ready to speak out against incidents of racism at football matches and it is with these people, I believe, that the battle to combat this issue should continue.

3) Valeriy Gazzaev keeps on banging on about a joint Russian-Ukrainian league

When first announced a year ago, the concept of a joint Russian-Ukrainian super league seemed daft. It now seems even dafter, but is seemingly gaining support in both countries. One reason is that the league’s organising committee have actually done some organising and can now answer questions on how the league structure might work. But the key factor behind its continuing existence in theory is the interest in the project of influential clubs like Zenit and Shakhtar Donetsk, and the financial might of Gazprom.

Gazprom’s money has allowed Valeriy Gazzaev to be appointed chief of the project, and he regularly tells the media of what a great idea it is: despite that the league would unlikely feed into European competitions, and relegation would be decided on geographical borders rather that final league placings (so that an equal number of Russian and Ukrainian sides always remain in the league).

A good idea? No way, in my view. But the money behind it means the project will rumble into 2014 – and it may become reality in 2015.

4) Russian sides outside the elite are in danger of going bankrupt

At the second level in Russia, sides pulling out due to financial problems are as common as at semi-professional level in England. Indeed, you have to go back to 2003 for the last time this didn’t happen.

This year is no exception: as well as one side being refused a licence at the start of the season, two more sides could fail to finish this year as both Alania Vladikavkaz and Spartak Nalchik (two sides with recent top flight history) have lost important financial backing. These sides are no back markers: currently in second and twelfth places respectively, it would be a bit like Derby County and Birmingham City finding they were unable to complete the current Championship season.

The main problem is that football in Russia doesn’t pay if you’re not in the Champions League. In the second tier gate receipts are low and merchandising revenue virtually non-existent, leaving clubs almost solely reliable on state funding or rich sponsors to keep going. The problem also affects top flight sides outside the elite few, with both FC Moscow and Saturn disappearing in recent years. One solution is the handsomely-funded joint Russian-Ukrainian league: which would see some of these sides better rewarded, but would cut others in the second and third tiers adrift.

5) Boris Rotenberg on the bench at Dinamo Moscow – again

There are probably not many footballers whose Wikipedia entry mentions a father worth seven hundred million dollars: and Boris Rotenberg’s his uncle is even richer. Boris’s regular appearances as an unused substitute on the Dinamo Moscow bench could have something to do with his wealthy father being club president rather than his burgeoning football talent.

Many fans don’t rate Boris at all as a defender, suggesting his true level is the Russian third tier. Indeed, he has only played regularly in the top flight twice, both times for sides relegated who conceded a lot of goals in the process. But despite this, Boris counts Zenit amongst his previous clubs (no first team appearances) and not long ago he earned a new Dinamo contract as a ‘young prospect’ (at the age of 26).

In interviews Boris comes across as an intelligent man who is eager to succeed, though his true vocation is perhaps not top level football. Having said that, don’t expect him to be anywhere other than the Dinamo bench in the next couple of years.

Saul Pope is a blogger on Russian and Ukrainian football. He can be followed on Twitter: @saulpope

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