Andrew Flint –
Stadium: Olimp-2 (15,840)
This tiny arena (by Champions League standards) will be quite a shock to Bayern München, Atlético Madrid and PSV Eindhoven, and might just be the key factor in Rostov pulling off some surprises. It is often packed to capacity, or near it, and is guaranteed to be rammed to the rafters for the glamorous visits to come. Only one stand is covered, with only one block of seats going back on all sides of the ground. Unlike many Russian stadia, it does not have an athletics track surrounding the pitch, with the fans just metres from the touchlines.
FC Rostov Champions League Preview Club Details
Fairytales don’t come any bigger then Rostov unless you live in the East Midlands, and support Leicester City. The southern minnows were one goal away from being crowned champions on the last day of last season having scraped clear of relegation the season before, and finished 11th or lower in 18 of the 25 season’s so far in Russian professional football. In fact 2014’s Russian Cup victory is the only silverware they have collected since the collapse of the Soviet Union, but the riches they will find in this season’s Champions League group stages are arguably far greater.
Their escape just over a year ago was miraculous enough on its own and was entirely down to the mercurial touch of then head coach Kurban Berdyev, who arrived in the winter break to rescue the sinking ship. Under the Turkmen, whose famously patient approach had brought two titles during his time at Rubin Kazan, the previously unfashionable outfit were galvanised into a cohesive unit as some old stalwarts of his joined his revolution near the Black Sea.
Berdyev was heavily linked with a move to Spartak Moscow this summer after his heroics last season, with Lokomotiv Moscow and even the national team positions reportedly his for the taking, but all three posts have been taken by others and he found himself in a strange limbo without a job.
On paper he returned in an ‘consultancy’ role that actually saw him not miss a match after his formal departure, while this week he was pointed to a bizarre ‘Vice-President/Coach’ role, where he will oversee youth development. His former assistant Ivan Daniliant, who was his youth coordinator at Rubin Kazan, has been promoted to replace Berdyev. As a result, the transition has been relatively smooth, although two key components of the rock-solid defence have made their lucrative moves to bigger clubs: losing Bastos to Lazio, and Ivan Novoseltsev to Zenit has seen replacements arrive but they haven’t had time to bed it yet.
Financial problems have dogged Rostov for a while now, to the extent where it is unusual for the club to not have transfer ban in place. The Sardar Azmoun saga has shown that they are resourceful, cunning or a mixture of the two after the Iranian sensation first went AWOL from parent club Rubin Kazan, then began training with Rostov, with CAS and FIFA dragged in to intervene on Rubin’s request. Sergey Pryadkin, the Russian Premier League President, declared Azmoun’s contract with Rubin to be the only legally binding one, but so far the 20-year-old continues to turn out for Rostov.
Know your oligarch:
Rostov’s funding is a very Russian picture—officially the Rostov local government own the club, but Greek-Russian oligarch Ivan Savvidis has bailed them out on more than one occasion. Savvidis also holds a controlling stake in PAOK Salonika, where he brought—and subsequently fired—former Chelsea sporting director Frank Arnesen, as well as signing Bulgarian striker Dimitir Berbatov after clearing the club’s debts and spending €80 million of his own money on the club. His Rostov-on-Don based AGROKOM Group became main sponsors of of the club earlier this year, securing a stream of revenue.
The draw could barely have been any tougher on Rostov. FC Bayern München may have lost Pep Guardiola to Manchester City in the summer, but replaced him with the urbane experience of Carlo Ancelotti, not to mention reinforcing their already world-class squad with Portugal’s teenage Euro 2016 winner Renato Sanches and Borussia Dortmund’s Mats Hummels. Robert Lewandowski has scored 73 goals since joining the club just over two years ago and will be the man to watch for the 2012-13 Champions League winners.
Possibly the strongest second seeds in the draw were Atlético de Madrid, who have more UEFA ranking points than every other club in the competition other than Bayern, reigning champions Real Madrid and five-time winners Barcelona. Beaten in the final in May by city rivals Real on penalties for the second time in three season, their pedigree cannot be doubted. €85 million-rated Frenchman Antoine Griezmann is the spark that Rostov will do well to keep quiet.
PSV Eindhoven troubled Manchester United last season by beating them 3-1 in Eindhoven and holding them to a goalless draw in England, so can be considered no pushovers, even if they are by far the weakest opponent in the group for Rostov to face. A familiar face will be former Ufa star Oleksandr Zinchenko who has joined on loan from Manchester City, although how much of his electric talent will be unleashed remains to be seen – he’s yet to play a minute since arriving in Holland.
— Football Club Rostov (@rostovfc) August 25, 2016
What to expect:
After such an incredible breakthrough season last time it seems awful to be so negative, but it is almost impossible to look past a last place finish in the group. The only hope of scraping a third place route to the Europa League is claiming a result in Holland—something they have already done to spectacular effect thrashing PSV’s rivals Ajax in qualifying – otherwise there is little chance of picking up points at all. Atlético, like Rostov, are famed for playing a low possession counter attacking style, so there might be a glimmer of opportunity for squeezing a result out of their visit to southern Russia.
Futbolgrad prediction: 4th
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Andrew Flint is a English freelance football writer living in Tyumen, Western Siberia, with his wife and two daughters. He has been featured on These Football Times, Russian Football News, Four Four Two and Sovetski Sport, mostly focusing on full-length articles about derbies, youth development and the game in Russia. Due to his love for FC Tyumen, he is particularly interested in lower league Russian football, and is looking to establish himself in time for the 2018 World Cup. Follow Andrew on Twitter @AndrewMijFlint.