CSKA Moscow’s timid exit from the Champions League at the hands of Inter pretty much summed up the position Russian football finds itself in at the moment. Despite all of the roubles and the aspirations of the oligarchs, there is a big gulf in class between the Russians and the best of the rest, a divide that will be hard to bridge.
One goal victories in either leg saw Inter ease past the Muscovites with the minimum of fuss. Whilst there was no disgrace in coming away from the San Siro a goal down, it was back in the potential lair of the Luzhniki where the Army Men fell short of steam, ideas and class to ruffle the feathers of one of the continents top dogs. Wesley Sneijder’s early strike was not what the doctor ordered for CSKA, but even still, all was not lost. A brief riposte followed with the Army Men mustering a bit of verve to unsettle the Italian champions, but Leonid Slutsky’s side were largely restricted to hopeful long range punts. The efforts waned as quickly as they were rebuffed, and long before the protracted finish of this tie it was apparent the Russians did not possess the necessary bite to sting Jose Mourinho’s men. True, the Neazzurri
In reality CSKA did well to get this far, advancing from a tricky group and humbling a decent Sevilla side, but that sums up the limitations of Russian teams and their domestic league. In order to be the best, you need the best – just look at the impact Sneijder has had for Inter since his move from Real Madrid. Last term Inter looked very mundane in getting knocked-out against Manchester United, yet that small introduction of an elite player has been crucial in getting them further in this competition than they have for seven years.
However, unfortunately for CSKA and the rest of Russia’s illuminati, the prospect of the cream of world football’s playing talent going east is at the moment just a dream. Whilst the capital may be available to support moves financially, the reality is that the Russian game lags way behind the major institutions of European football. For example, the money is effectively the final part of the jigsaw, the fundamentals such as the infrastructure of clubs, the training facilities, the attendances, the stadia, the global audience, and the strength of the league all fall short of England, Spain, Italy and Germany. These are elements to which there is no quick fix, no price that can be put on these commodities – they are bred and ingrained, and currently, this huge, unorthodox and mysterious country is just a decade into what other countries have been developing throughout their culture for over a century. Again, this is yet another link to Russia’s geo-political ties with the sport, ones which will only grow stronger with the influence of capitalism, but which are very much in their infancy.
Also in its early stages is the league campaign and the current table toppers are a side who, frankly, few people will have heard of. Based in the foothills of the Caucasus Mountains are Spartak Nalchik, a regional side whose first venture into Russia’s top flight only came four years ago. Before then Nalchik were doing nothing in particular and have since recorded four unspectacular mid-table finishes. This season they have flown out of the blocks, unbeaten and winning three of their first four – the latest a 5-2 rout of FK Rostov. A look at Nalchik’s squad will draw more blank glances but they appear to have done what many of the other side’s so infrequently do – combining organisation and application to maximum effect. Seeing their game versus Rostov last weekend will highlight the deficiencies of what most of the Premier League’s sides fail to do – defend. As well as Nalchik played, Rostov were guilty of some kamikaze defending, a contagious fate instilled in Russian football, so much so that its current best team, Rubin, are there on the basis of being by far the best defensively.
The Ruby have registered four consecutive clean sheets, scoring only three times and drawing their last two games 0-0. Their football is akin to watching dust settle, but it makes for a highly effective strategy and achieves more results than the schoolboy stuff favoured elsewhere, such as the Moscow derby (yes, another) between Lokomotiv and Dinamo – a duo with vague aspirations of a title tilt. Loko’ won by the odd goal in five, but once again the fixture was punctuated by the type of defensive play rarely associated with champions. A stronger show of unity in this game, however, was the minutes remembrance for the victims of the Moscow metro bombing the week before. As the ground fell silent, the poignant and emotive sound of Barber’s Adagio for Strings rang hauntingly around the Lokomotiv Stadium. In that moment, the game, the money, the result and the sport, all paled into insignificance when compared to the cost of human life.