When FC Rostov challenged for the title last season, they were often described as the Russian version of Leicester City. And that is probably the easiest way to explain to a foreigner what feelings this team causes. Two years ago, Rostov was in last place in the Russian Football Premier League, but then they hired Kurban Berdyev as the new head coach, and he managed to turn things around in an almost magical way. Following survival in the top flight, which required two relegation play-off matches, Rostov made a couple of inconspicuous transfers, but the fans weren’t expecting any more than a mid-table finish at best.
Instead, Rostov defeated CSKA Moscow, Spartak Moscow, Zenit St. Petersburg, Lokomotiv Moscow (twice) and finished just two points behind CSKA just because of that save in the dying minutes of the last round. Despite a fairytale season they failed to become champions. It is not the only thing that differs Rostov from Leicester.
The Russian club doesn’t face relegation this season. In fact they are fighting for a Europa League spot. Rostov didn’t lose its key player after the miraculous season, and their head coach is not a king who suddenly became a loser, but instead one of the most respected and skilled coaches in Russia.
The Special One
Formally the club’s head coach these days is Ivan Danilyants however, who was Berdyev’s assistant last season. It is assumed that his assistant, Dmitry Kirichenko, who once scored the fastest goal in the history of the European championships, will lead the team after getting a license. The strange, and unusual, constellation is despite fact that the players openly acknowledge that Berdyev is the de facto head coach. Nevertheless, it was set in place after Berdyev left the club last summer and was linked with Spartak, Lokomotiv and Russia national team. In the end though, he returned to Rostov as a “team consultant” before the Champions League play-off round and was later appointed as a vice-president and a member of the coaching staff.
Berdyev is an old-school type of manager, similar to greats like Alex Ferguson or Bill Belichik, who likes to control all the processes in the club. It is clear that he is responsible for all Rostov’s achievements this season, including the impressive victory against Bayern Munich. In fact, Bayern is just one of many top clubs who have lost to Berdyev, alongside FC Barcelona, Inter Milan and Ajax Amsterdam.
At Rostov, Berdyev has assembled a squad consisting of what some would call the garbage of the bigger teams. The goalkeeper, Soslan Dzhanaev, for example is best remembered by Spartak fans for his many mistakes, but at Rostov he has turned into one of the best in the country, and he is now in the national team squad. Another player turned around at Rostov is Aleksandr Bukharov. The former Rubin Kazan and Zenit striker was a Russian football joke, as he was once implicated in a drunken brawl at an airport, which brilliantly correlated with his last name, which can be translated as McDrunk. Since joining Rostov, Bukharov has slowly rebuilt his reputation, and he scored twice in the spring opener against Tom Tomsk.
Another player not good enough for a Russian top club is striker Dmitry Poloz, who never earned a game at Lokomotiv, but scored three goals in the Champions League group stage nevertheless.
In combination with the players picked from the bigger clubs, Berdyev has a number of experienced players, which many deemed over the hill, to make sure everyone follows his strategy. Central defendr Cesar Navas is 37, but still a key player for Rostov, and one of the best defenders in Russia. Wing-back Timofey Kalachev is ‘only’ 35, but was recently voted as the 36th best player in the RFPL by the RFN writing team, and he continues to amaze with his offensive contribution and hard work. Against Sparta, he made a wonderful assist to Poloz for the 2-0 goal.
Rostov is a counter attacking team, and they are truly the masters of this art. According to InStat, Rostov are only 15th in the RFPL, which consists of 16 teams, in terms of ball possession, being behind all these boring teams from the bottom. Rostov is 14th in total number of attacks, and their average pass length is the 4th longest in the league.
To show just how well Rostov defend, they didn’t lose a single game last season after scoring first. They aren’t on the same level this year, which their 3-2 defeat in St. Petersburg where they led 2-0 proves, but they are still an incredibly difficult team to play against. Especially because the offence works better this season, proven by the fact that they have already won five games with two goals or more, including difficult European games against Ajax and Sparta, compared to just two times last season.
Rostov became known as the Russian Leicester, but their performances this season, have proved that they are so much more, and with Berdyev they won’t be a walk-over for anyone.
Author: Ilya Sokolov
I became interested in football after the 1998 World Cup. Despite my dad wanting me to support Dynamo, I chose Lokomotiv (the name sounded great) and soon saw the team win the league for the first time in its history. Besides Loko, I also like watching Amateur League games in Moscow and its suburbs.