WE have a new feature at RFN that will offer a discussion amongst our diverse collection of experts. We will touch on hot subjects and issues among Russian football and share different opinions on the latest in Russian football.
The Round Table will feature our experts’ answers for each question.
Let’s meet our experts for this Round Table:
Rob – @RobDillonMTA – a journalist who specializes in Russian football, he is also the Editor of morethanarshavin.wordpress.com
Pavel – @russianpotter – a Nizhny Novgorod-based young journalist and Spartak supporter, Volga attendee
Andy – @AndyShenk – a Moscow based writer and Russian language translator, Andy supports Anzhi
John – @JohnSager – Russian football fan from California and Zenit supporter
1) With 2 games to go, there are 6 points separating 6 teams from 4 European spot. Which 4 teams get the last six spots?
ROB: Anzhi, Rubin, Dinamo and Spartak. Anzhi have got it locked down now, Rubin never go away no matter how poor they are over the season, Dinamo are on a roll and only have Alania and Volga to play. I’d love Kuban to beat Spartak to the final spot, but they’ve got CSKA and Anzhi left to play – unless the Dagestanis feel like doing them a favour, it’s tough to see them getting more than a point from those two. Terek have still got a shout with two very winnable games against Mordovia and Krylya, but at this stage there’s too much riding on those above them to put them in.
PAVEL: I think the first odd one out will be Spartak. Too unstable this season and even though they are to play unmotivated Alania at home on matchday 30, they’ll still have to beat Krasnodar away. Mind the 30C on the south now and it doesn’t look simple. And, personally, I want it too. Probably, if they won’t make it to Europa League, Karpin gets sacked. As a fan, I want it. The second one, in my opinion, will be Terek. They haven’t got the winners’ mentality and they could lack confidence.
ANDY: A few weeks ago, I predicted it would be Anzhi, Dinamo, Spartak and Terek, in that order. Now, I’m pretty sure Anzhi, Dinamo and Rubin are through, but that Kuban, Spartak and Terek are in a dogfight for the final spot. My gut tells me to go with Spartak, but my heart says Terek. I just don’t see Kuban beating either CSKA or Anzhi to close the season and I think either Spartak or Terek will win both of their games to squeeze by. I’ll go with Terek in a shocker.
JOHN: I think Anzhi are a lock. I think Kuban sneak in as a team in decent form who are a good unit. I can’t ever turn away Rubin. And Dinamo will have done just enough to get in. Terek, I think, will fall short. And the big name I’m missing – Spartak – just are playing too poorly.
2) Anzhi didn’t score, once again, to their neighbor Terek. What is your take on the their free-fall from second?
ROB: It’s hard to see what’s gone wrong at Anzhi – they’ve missed out on the Champions League comfortably, and whilst they may take the cup it’s been a disappointing year in Makhachkala. Whether it’s Hiddink or someone else in charge next season, the priority has to be the sort the defence out – their mercenary back line isn’t up to scratch at the minute. Eschenko was a good buy, Logashov is promising and Joao Carlos is fine, but the locals – much as the crowd love them – don’t cut it and Agalarov isn’t getting any better. Also, get the playmakers on and let Eto’o do his thing up front!
PAVEL: Firstly, I want to say that Terek-Anzhi could be a fixed match. It’s the, you know, “Caucasus brothership” helping each other with points. But the free fall of the Dagestani team, I believe, is mostly connected with their decision to play all-out in the Europa League. They left a lot of energy there, which wasn’t necessary. They’ve done it too good for the first time when made it to last 32. As a result, their physical condition is far from ideal. In the end, conceding the winning goal in the 2nd match in added time is definitely not the best way to be beaten. Maybe, it’s time for Hiddink to go, too.
ANDY: Anzhi can partly blame losing key center back Chris Samba at the end of the transfer window, as well as Russian international left back Andrey Eschenko at the end of March. Players also pointed to poor morale following the last-gasp defeat at Newcastle in the Europa League round of 16 as one reason for their poor domestic play this spring.
If none of that had happened, I think Anzhi would be neck-and-neck with Zenit for a Champions League spot, but not within reach of 1st. There’s not much more to it than that for me. Anzhi weren’t world-beaters last fall, despite some success, and a few major hits showed just how fragile the squad can be.
JOHN: I think this may be too simple, but I do not like their tactics. Injuries have necessitated some of the lack of attacking initiative, but I don’t think Hiddink is getting the maximum out of his squad. The attacking talent is there to build a team that scores goals, yet I feel Hiddink prefers a functional and safe lineup instead. I also think they can upgrade their Russian talent.
3) On the issue of falling, Zenit had a chance for the title and had to beat relegation contenders Rostov and promptly drew. Who and what do you blame?
ROB: It was a tough penalty, but you look at the number of chances Zenit (even just Hulk) had and they should have taken at least another one. They did the same against Anzhi in the cup semi, laying siege to the goal without ever scoring, so you have to blame the forwards. Hulk may have only arrived in late August, but Zenit have got one man in the top 15 RPL scorers – Kerzhakov with 10 – and three of those have come from the spot. On their day they’re probably the most fluid attacking side in Russia, but they need to be finishing their chances. Personnel aren’t an issue, maybe it’s just complacency?
PAVEL: Could be too obvious, but their summer shopping. Spalletti (if it was his decision) ruined the team atmosphere by buying Hulk and Witsel. All autumn the team was talking too much about salaries and authority and too little about football. They started to show their best lately, but they’ve already had no right to a mistake. The mistake happened.
ANDY: Zenit, much like Anzhi, haven’t been a dominant club for most of the season that can just go on cruise control. And Rostov, despite sitting 12th, are a pretty decent club, especially at home, having knocked off Spartak and Terek on the way to the Russian Cup semis. It looked for a while this spring like the Zenit magic might be enough for a 3rd-straight title, but I think it ran out in Rostov last weekend a few weeks early.
JOHN: I think Spalletti is too blame. I don’t want to sound like I am always blaming the coaches, but I think he perhaps has overplayed Zyryanov and Semak at the expense of younger Russian talent (or even foreign talent.) Ionov is now doing well for Kuban, for example. I think Spalletti is too rigid in his approach, and has made other poor player selections as well. Neto has been a disaster yet continually plays. What was once the strength – the defense – is now error prone. All things considered about the problems, the team still stayed in the title race to the very end, so this is a talented squad with a lot of good to offer.
4) Are Spartak a big enough club that the Europa League is beneath them and an unnecessary distraction?
ROB: No, not any more.Their fans may think they are, they might have a big enough fanbase to apply that label, but perceived size matters little if they aren’t performing on the pitch. Spartak did well to get to the Champions League groups but were shown up for their lack of top level quality, and there’s no reason they shouldn’t take the Europa seriously if they do manage to qualify. Purely practical reasons apply – a good run would boost club and country’s UEFA coefficient – but quite frankly they aren’t winning anything else at the moment and their big club mentality demands silverware, progress, or both. For any Russian team to dismiss the Europa League as unworthy is ridiculous at this stage, let alone one sat 7th in the table – no matter how ‘big’ they might think they are.
PAVEL: NO. You can’t ensure serious players to move if you’re not playing in Europe. In that case, Europa League is better than nothing. Also, supporters want the European challenge. Away days, foreign teams in Moscow. And, if players are not really that bad as they were against Mordovia or Krylya, we can even talk about winning the tournament (Karpin has one more year left and he needs a trophy in that year. Isn’t that an opportunity?). On the other hand, it’s exhausting. It can spoil the regular season (I’d, however, choose a European trophy first, if we had a single chance to win it in present conditions). Plus, again, it’s better than nothing when it comes to money. The club needs compensation for what they spent on the stadium.
ANDY: I would say that they are, at least until the knockout stage of the competition. Especially given the turmoil at the club in recent years, I think it would make sense to really focus domestically and have a run at the title, kind of like CSKA did this year by getting knocked out in Europa League qualifying. Spartak fans won’t get too excited by the Europa League, anyway, unless they advance to the semis or better.
JOHN: I do not think the Europa League is beneath any Russian clubs. In fact, I think the Europa League is great for fans of any league, and a club who does not care is really doing its fans a disservice. Zenit is still proud of its Europa win, and for many clubs like Zenit, Shakhtar, Porto – a Europa League victory is seen as a way to propel you into Champions League success. Any competition is worth winning.
5) We all agree (I think) that Alania has history and footballing tradition. What has been their downfall this year? Do you think politics has played any role in it?
ROB: Part of the reason is money – Alania didn’t have a sponsor for a while, haven’t been paying players and the like, so that hasn’t helped. You have to blame the management here, Vladimir Gazzaev had next to no experience other than failing to win the First Division with the strongest squad, and Valery’s tactics have been found a little dated since stepping back in. The squad isn’t good enough with the exception of one or two standouts, but on paper they’re not miles away from the likes of Rostov, Amkar, Krylya and Volga. I don’t think politics have had too much to do with this season, they’ve just been downright bad. It’s a shame, I for one would love to see them back to the glory days of the early 1990s, but at the minute it’s difficult to see them ever being more than skin-of-the-teeth survivalists at best.
PAVEL: They’ve not been ready for the Premier League. A young coach (who never managed a PL team), mostly young squad that has no PL experience as well, bad summer transfer campaign, coaching change, the fact that Gazzaev Sr. cared more about United Championship than his team. There’s no politics at all. However, there were too many teams from Caucasus.
ANDY: If there are any external reasons for Alania’s struggles this season, it would be that Valery Gazzaev is heading up the United Championship project, putting him in direct conflict with the Russian Football Union.
Anyhow, I’m very surprised Alania did so poorly. The fans there should be very upset. Most people, I think, feel that Gazzaev didn’t spend enough time with the team, while working to promote the United Championship. I do expect Alania to be back up next year. There are plans for a new stadium and improved academy, so I think the club is still moving forward, despite this temporary setback. Gazzaev doesn’t appear to be going anywhere.
JOHN: I was impressed with Alania early in the season, as they played a wide open attacking game and looked quite good. If anyone followed betting patterns, the over 2.5 was a sure thing. I also saw a team spirit at the time that looked good for staying up. But then reality crept in, and apparently the early tactics were too naïve. After a coaching change, and money problems (reports that players were not paid for months), Alania has been doomed after the break. After the break, at a time when improved play was needed, Alania have looked like a dire club.