Red Review – Who’s who in Russian football?

With the start of the Russian Premier League getting closer, it is now a good time for Red Review to introduce the sides you’ll be hearing a lot more of over the coming months.

A natural start is with the reigning champions, Rubin Kazan, a provincial side based in the largely Muslim Tatarstan region of Russia, 700km east of Moscow. The history of ‘Rubinovye’ had been fairly undistinguished having never previously played in the Russian top flight until 2003. Rubin qualified for the UEFA Cup in two of their first three seasons in the Premier and this slow and steady progress continued, eventually resulting in successive league titles in 2008 and 2009. Their reputation was further enhanced in the group stages of the 2009/10 Champions League when they beat Barcelona at the Camp Nou. The formula behind their uprising is far from the cash splash favoured by other clubs. Instead, Rubin have based their assault around frugal spending, a strong scouting network, and a manager who has virtually made wine from water.

Kurban Berdyev has been Coach since 2001 – an eternity in Russian managerial years. He is seen as a Brian Clough type figure, who has permed a collection of unfashionable players into an organised, winning unit. The squad contains few superstars. Captain Sergei Semak is the only regular in the Russian national team, whilst the club have opted against shelling out huge fees on imports. Last season’s star man Alejandro Dominguez has been sold to Valencia, but they have managed to keep hold of highly-rated Argentine defender Cristian Ansaldi and promising striker Aleksandr Bukharov. As usual, continuity is the key and new signings have been low-profile. Young Spanish defender Jordi has signed from Celta Vigo after failing to make the grade at Real Madrid, whilst striker Fatih Tekke has signed from Zenit St Peterburg. Expect more of the same from Rubin in 2010, minimum fuss, but maximum impact.

The polar opposite of Rubin are Zenit St Petersburg, Russia’s richest club. Zenit were taken over by gas giants Gazprom in 2005 and have been on an almost continuous spending spree since then, ploughing well over £100m into huge transfers, salaries and, now, a new 60 000 state-of-the-art stadium due to be completed in 2011. Under Dick Advocaat, Zenit ended an 11-year title monopoly by the Moscow clubs when they won the league in 2007 and also went onto win the 2008 UEFA Cup and European Super Cup, but things have stalled since then. Following the league win, finishes of fifth and third saw the demise of Advocaat, who has now been replaced by ex-Roma boss Luciano Spalletti. Spalletti is armed with arguably the best squad in the competition. Vyacheslav Malafeev, Aleksandr Anyukov, Vladimir Bystrov, Igor Denisov and Aleksandr Kerzhakov are all regulars with the national side, and they are joined by expensive recruits such as Danny Alves and Alessandro Rosina. With such heavy investment and ambition, Gazprom will have their eyes on top spot, this season, and Zenit look well equipped to deliver.

The rest of the chasing pack is made up of the Moscow contingent who traditionally ensure a stranglehold on Russian football due to their support and funding. Last season’s runners up were Spartak, the country’s most decorated club. The Myaso (meat) were the only Muscovite club not to be affiliated with any state regime and as such are seen as ‘the people’s club’. In the early days of the Premier League, Spartak dominated, winning nine of the first 10 championships until 2001, but have not added to this tally since. Spartak no longer dominate as they once did, their rivals have been able to catch and pass given investment, although Spartak themselves enjoy the benfits of being sponsored by Lukoil. The lack of recent success has led to an impatience to return to the top, and thus a trigger-happy board have hired and fired nine managers in the past six years. Michael Laudrup was axed midway through last term, replaced by club legend Valery Karpin who guided his side to second place and a Champions league spot. Brazilian striker Welliton was the league’s top scorer in 2009 and his goals will be needed if Myaso are to improve on second place finishes in four of the last five seasons.

It was Spartak’s great rivals CSKA who took over their mantra as the nation’s top team at the start of the millennium. The Armeytsy (Army Men) were bought by Roman Arbramovich’s Sibneft and enjoyed generous funding to earn them the league crown in 2003, 2005 and 2006, as well as becoming the first Russian team to win a European trophy when they captured the 2005 UEFA Cup. VTB Bank took over from Sibneft in 2006 and the silverware has since dried up. Big bucks were paid to lure Zico to Moscow but he was sacked last year, along with his replacement Juande Ramos – who lasted 47 days – in what proved to be an annus horribilis. The club finished a disappointing fifth and now have Leonid Slutsky, the ‘Russian Mourinho’ at the helm. Slutsky’s first achievement was to usher CSKA into the knock-out stages of the Champions League, but similar to the rest of the city’s clubs, their fans and owners demand to see them restored to top spot.

Lokomotiv Moscow are the club who most significantly retain links with their founders, still being run and funded by the Ministry of Russian Railways. Loko have always been around the upper echelons of the league but have just two titles to show for it, attained in 2002 and 2004. The club do not enjoy the vast riches of their peers and are hampered by having a develop and sell policy, having offloaded, amongst others, Diniyar Bilyaletdinov, Marat Izmailov and Branislav Ivanovic in the last few seasons. Former national Goldenboy Dmitri Sychev spearheads their attack and new Ukrainian midfielder Oleksandr Aliyev will add quality in midfield, but a sustained title charge looks beyond them.

Desperately trying to end a 34-year drought for a championship is Dynamo Moscow, who are the undisputed kings of comedy in Russia. The club were the dominant force in Soviet football for years, when they were inextricably linked with the KGB, but that power diminished long ago. Owner Alexei Fedorychev threw millions of roubles at trying to elevate his side to the top of the sport between 2004 and 2006, but the attempts backfired spectacularly. In 2005 the club raided Porto to sign Maniche, Costinha, Derlei and Giourkas Seitaridis but none of the players acclimatised to Russian life and abruptly departed, leaving Dynamo to record below-par finishes of eighth, 14th and sixth, before finishing third in 2008. The instability returned last time out as they rolled home in eighth. Dynamo’s problem is they have lavishly, but unwisely, bought a succession of big name players rather than men to do the job. The Policemen had previously announced deals to sign Cristiano Ronaldo and Luis Figo, both of which never came to fruition, and they seem intent on trying to put the roof on before the walls are up. With Fedorychev now out of Dynamo having sold his shares to VTB Bank, the side have taken a more cerebral approach to transfers. They have raided the financially stricken FC Moscow for four of their players and have also added Andriy Voronin from Liverpool and national team midfielder Igor Semshov from Zenit. The squad has a more complete feel, but a title challenge still looks as distant a dream as signing Ronaldo.

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