Manuel Veth –
Futbolgrad’s Russian Football Premier League roundup from matchday 13 focuses on the title race between Zenit and Spartak, as well as the unexpected rise of Terek Grozny.
In recent weeks, the title race has been a force of wills between Spartak Moscow and Zenit Saint Petersburg. Going into matchday 13, both clubs were on top of the table with 28 points each. Both clubs had difficult away encounters. Spartak travelled to Tomsk, Siberia’s oldest town, to play Tom, the local club. Upon arrival, they were greeted by the full brunt of the Siberian winter, with snowfall and low minus temperatures.
Zenit, meanwhile, headed to the Caucasus to play Terek Grozny in Chechnya. Clubs from Russia, in general, do poorly when traveling to Russia’s Caucasus region. In the Russian Cup, for example, Zenit recently suffered a heavy 4-0 defeat to Anzhi Makhachkala, which is located in Chechnya’s neighbouring region, Dagestan.
While Spartak Moscow dispatched Tom easily with a 1-0 victory in the frozen tundra through a wonderful strike by Fernando, it was Zenit that blinked first in the title race, when Mircea Lucescu’s men stumbled for a second time in the Caucasus, and lost 2-1 to Terek Grozny on Sunday.
Zenit had actually taken the early lead through a strike by Róbert Mak. What followed was one of the most bizarre phenomena of Russian club football, when a man with a microphone shouted in both Chechen and Russian to the audience and the players not to give up.
The encouragement seemed to do the trick, and Terek Grozny responded brilliantly, with Terek’s Albanian striker Bekim Balaj scoring twice, in the 34th and 38th minutes, to overturn the result. After both goals, the camera zoomed in on the VIP-Box to show Chechnya’s President, Ramzan Kadyrov, wildly jumping up and down in celebration.
Terek Grozny could be this season’s surprise team
Almost anything that Terek does is closely connected to President Kadyrov—his administration after all owns the club—and there are some major story lines emerging from the Chechen Republic. First, the club provided the first significant stumbling block to Zenit’s title challenge this season and, second, Terek are now third in the league, as the result means that they have overtaken the struggling CSKA Moscow.
In addition, there is the story of Bekim Balaj, who now leads the Russian Football Premier League in scoring. The Albanian was signed by Terek from HNK Rijeka where, last season, he formed a deadly partnership with Roman Bezjak, during which the two scored 22 goals together (Balaj nine, and Bezjak 13). But this year, Balaj has shown, by scoring eight goals in 12 RFPL games this season, that he can also be fantastic scorer without his former partner from Rijeka.
Terek have, in recent years, been overshadowed by the extravagant behaviour of its direct neighbours Anzhi Makhachkala, which, under the ownership of Suleyman Kerimov, embarked on a project to build a European super club in 2011, just to have it disintegrate with most of the top players gone and the club relegated to the second division.
Aside from the fact that Terek are owned by the Chechen Republic, under the direct leadership of its sometimes megalomaniac president, the club, in the last three years, has attempted to progress in small steps and, under the leadership of the Tajik head coach Rashid Rakhimov, who took over the club in 2013, the club has finished 12th, ninth, and seventh in the last three years.
Terek are now third in the table and, while it is still early in the season, a top four finish, which would mean European football next season, is not out of question. This seems even more likely given the fact that several big teams, such as CSKA Moscow, Krasnodar, and Lokomotiv, Rostov, and Rubin Kazan, have struggled early on in the season.
Rakhimov has done well to stabilise the club
Rakhimov has done well to build a squad that, Balaj aside, does not rely on a single superstar, but instead is an extremely deep squad, which allows the coach to rotate his players frequently. The foregoing indicates that Terek could be more than just a fluke, and could indeed become the surprise package of the season.
The club also has some fantastic infrastructure, as they are playing in the Akhmat Arena, which opened in 2011 and was named after Ramzan Kadyrov’s father who was assassinated during a Soviet Day parade at the old Dinamo Stadium in 2004. The arena, technically speaking, meets UEFA standards but, when Grozny will host UEFA club competition games remains questionable because, although improved, the situation in Chechnya remains volatile.
The main question, however, is whether they will be able to maintain their momentum past the winter break. The Russian Football Premier League is, in many ways, divided into two seasons—before and after the winter break. The RFPL will go on break on December 5, and will not resume until March 2, 2017, and history has shown that a lot can happen in the three month long winter break.
The RFPL is almost like two seasons
Last season, for example, Lokomotiv went into the winter break as one of the major title challengers, just to see their season disintegrate to the point where they completely missed out on a European qualification spot. Some of the above-mentioned clubs that have struggled will make major adjustments to their squad in the winter break in order to improve their performance.
With this in mind, it is too early to tell whether Grozny can truly challenge the very top teams. But their steady progress over the last three seasons under Rakhimov suggests that the club could, once again, improve its final standing. This is especially true because Rakhimov will benefit from the fact that Kadyrov who, as the President of Chechnya is the nominal owner of the club and has stepped away from any official role with the club.
Instead, the former insurgent fighter, Magomed Daudov, has been named the official chairman of the club. On a first glance this does not look like an ideal appointment, but the government has had a relatively hands-off approach to managing the club.
Whether this approach will continues, remains to be seen, however, as, if the club becomes more successful, Kadyrov may want to have a share of the limelight, and therefore could increase his influence. This could mean a large coffer of money may be provided to improve the squad in the winter, but it could also mean more meddling in the club’s affairs. It would, after all, not be the first time that dreams in the Caucasus have come crashing down…
Russian Football Premier League Roundup – Talking Points
- CSKA Moscow remain in trouble, as Leonid Slutsky’s side tied Amkar Perm 2-2 on the weekend. The club has now dropped to fourth spot, and is now nine points behind league leaders Spartak Moscow. There are now indications that the club will give Slutsky over the national team break to turn things around, but results will have to improve quickly if Slutsky wants to hang on to his job.
- Ural Sverdlovsk Oblast has seen a coaching staff change last weekend, as there were further implications of match fixing. Vadim Skripchenko left the club and signed for Krylia Sovetov Samara and, as fate would have it, Samara met Ural in Skripchenko’s first game as the head coach of his new club. The score ended in a 2-2 draw, and there have been no indications that the match was fixed.
- Winter has arrived in Russia, as many games were played in sub zero temperatures this weekend. sports.ru has collected some of the best pictures from snow covered football stadiums. But, as the season continues into November and December, voices will once again be raised to question the viability of playing football in Russia on the European schedule. In the past, the Soviet Vysshaya Liga, and later the Russian Football Premier League, were played within the calendar year from spring to the fall, thus avoiding the worst winter months. Futbolgrad’s Saul Pope has argued in the past that the current schedule is madness, and that the league needs to head back to the timetable of the past.
Manuel Veth is a freelance journalist and a writer for Bundesliga.com. He is also a holder of a Doctorate of Philosophy in History from King’s College London, and his thesis is titled: “Selling the People’s Game: Football’s transition from Communism to Capitalism in the Soviet Union and its Successor States”, which will be available in print soon. Originally from Munich, Manuel has lived in Amsterdam, Kyiv, Moscow, Tbilisi, London, and currently is located in Victoria BC, Canada. Follow Manuel on Twitter @homosovieticus.