Monday, 15 March 2010

A Crash Course in Russian Football: Part 2

"One man's meat is another man's poison", as the saying goes. That's actually not true at all. Neither vegetarians nor hardened carnivores would enjoy a nasty dose of E. coli from rotten beef. No, a more accurate message is perhaps this - sometimes even our favourite things can leave a lot to be desired.

Following on from Friday's Part 1, providing some background to Russia's Premier Football League, The Cynical Challenge spent the weekend watching the opening weekend of Russian football fixtures. And as I've already made clear, watching the Russian Premier League, in my book, is right up there with tea and dark chocolate digestives as one of my favourite spare time-fillers.

Sadly, though - and this is where the opening paragraph of this blog comes in - the first round of matches in the Russian Premier League did little to whet appetites. In the eight matches played this weekend there were a mere 11 goals. 

There were admittedly some highlights among this rather paltry number. Zenit St Petersburg's Portuguese international Danny, once the subject of a £20 million inquiry from Chelsea, scored a lovely solo winner against Krylya Sovetov. Terek Grozny's Andrey Kobenko proved that you don't need to be Brazilian to score a spectacular lob. And Rubin Kazan's fans proved they have a sense of humour, suggesting in a chant that rivals Krylya Sovetov Samara, who are suffering from well-publicised financial problems, ought to try Ebay for a solution. 

[Note: There's a hidden message to the Ebay chant - in Russian the company's name also sounds like the f-word...]

But, as much as The Cynical Challenge aims to champion Russia as one of the more exciting championships in European football, the games on Friday, Saturday and Sunday were for the most part akin to watching grass grow. Which is funny, really, as one of the things which would have improved the spectacle across the Russian Premier League would be a bit of decent turf. Defending champions Rubin, for example, played on a pitch at their Tsentralny Stadium which was something out of the World War I battlefields. 

Even where the football had no need for grass - in Spartak Moscow's Luzhniki Stadium for example, which has a synthetic pitch - the icy conditions detracted from the spectacle. Blizzard conditions (watch the first couple of minutes of this video) during the first half of Spartak versus Dinamo really proved the old Russian adage that "snow is pretty, but it freezes your feet". I hate to sound like a broken record, as I've referred to this numerous times, but if there was ever an argument for maintaining the Russian football season in summer it was this weekend's round of matches.

The good news, though, is that things will improve. Pitches will thaw and players will get up to speed, and the Russian Premier League will soon be back to its combative, close-fought best. Because the truth about the Russian championship is that any one of perhaps six teams have a good chance of winning it. 

Winners in 2008 and 2009, Rubin are again going to be a tough nut to crack. They easily dispensed with title rivals Lokomotiv Moscow on Sunday, winning 2-0 in Kazan. Back in October Rubin beat Barcelona in the Champions League group stages, demonstrating that, though they lack big name players, they are a hugely effective unit. Since the Barcelona victory they have lost their one star player, Argentine forward Alejandro Dominguez, who opted to move to Valencia during the winter. But the addition of experienced Turkish striker Fatih Tekke and Israeli midfielder Bibras Natkho should allow Rubin to maintain their excellent run over the last few league seasons.

Despite the setback away to Rubin, Lokomotiv are themselves looking good for a spot among the top three or four. Ukrainian international Aleksandr Aliev, who was one of Dynamo Kyiv's brightest talents, has arrived at Loko along with Brazilian forward Maicon, both of whom should provide more firepower. They slot in alongside Uzbekistan-born Nigerian Peter Odemwingie, formerly of Lille, and Russian international winger/forward Dmitry Sychev. Add into the mix the persistent rumours that Tottenham Hotspur striker Roman Pavlyuchenko might return to Russia to join Lokomotiv in the summer, and the squad have among the best attacking line in the division. Expect plenty of goals from them.

CSKA Moscow enter the new season with high expectations. Last season was one of turmoil in the coaching department for them, having been managed first by Zico and then by Juande Ramos before finally opting for a Russian speaker, Leonid Slutsky. Results have picked up and CSKA remain in this season's UEFA Cup, but they have also lost enigmatic Brazilian striker Vagner Love, who has finally grown tired of the Russian winter and departed for home club Fluminense. They have been boosted, however, by the signing of Japanese international forward Keisuke Honda, who scored the winner on his league debut against Amkar on Friday, and the return to form of former Liverpool man Mark Gonzalez.

Speaking of Liverpool rejects, one of the Russian league's most high profile signings was Andriy Voronin, who departed Anfield for Dinamo Moscow in January. Voronin played the full 90 minutes in Dinamo's 1-0 away win at Spartak on Sunday, and his side look a good outfit under an excellent young manager in Andrey Kobelev. Dinamo have the league's second pair of identical twins (after CSKA's Berezutsky brothers), the dynamic wingers Kirill and Dmitry Kombarov, while in midfield the indefatigable Dmitry Khokhlov, who had spells with PSV Eindhoven and Real Sociedad in the '90s, continues to pull the strings. Despite finishing eighth last year, they are this blog's outside tip for the title.

After losing manager Dick Advocaat, with whom they won the league and UEFA Cup in 2007, Zenit St Petersburg started the season with an easy 2-0 win over stricken Krylya Sovetov. New coach Luciano Spalletti has a big job on his hands, not least in keeping his bald head warm throughout the cold months, but his squad is taking shape. Fatih Tekke departed, to be replaced by PSV's Serbian forward Danko Lazovic, and he will team up with burly Russian international Aleksandr Kerzhakov, once a UEFA Cup winner with Sevilla. But most important to Zenit's cause is the return from injury of playmaker Danny, and if he remains fit the club will be around the top spot this year.

The final word goes to Spartak Moscow. For those unacquainted with the Russian league, they are the Manchester United of Russia, in the sense that they are the best-supported club in Russia, and are loved and loathed in equal measure. Hugely inflated ambitions have meant the club has gone through a string of managers over the last ten years, has alienated good players, and as a result has largely underperformed. Now, under former Celta Vigo and Real Sociedad player Valery Karpin, the club at last looks set for a tilt at the title. Alex, a Brazilian midfield playmaker, provides the team's craft, while a Brazilian forward pairing of Welliton, last year's top scorer in the Russian Premier League, and Ari, a new signing from AZ Alkmaar, will be among the goals. The club's potential downfall, as ever, is infighting - Spartak's fans are, paradoxically, incredibly loyal and infuriatingly fickle in equal measure, and the slightest hint of disquiet in the ranks could tear apart their season.

So that's my pick of the six potential title-winners in the 2010 Russian Premier League. I defy you to find another league of 16 teams where so many clubs have a genuine chance of success. So sit back, wait for the sun to come out, and enjoy what could be a seriously close title chase.

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Always glad to hear your thoughts. Be nice now! James