Krasnodar Academy and the Russian Youth Cup

Russia’s annual U18 tournament is undoubtedly the most intriguing and important youth tournament in the country. Each year, regional playoffs take place throughout the country in order to select the top 16 teams, which then play in the national tournament. The prestige of winning a national tournament aside, this competition is significant in one special way: as Russia’s domestic champion, the winner gets the right to play in the UEFA Youth Champion’s League, and the opportunity to play against Europe’s most elite U19 teams the following year.

As last year’s tournament winners, Krasnodar’s current U19s are reaping these rewards this season, having advanced to the round of 16 in this year’s rendition of the Youth League. As one of the very few current academies in Russia operating on Western terms, their fortunes are worth highlighting. Although The Bulls’ current U18 team did not live up to the expectation set for them by their elders, but still had some positive performances worth highlighting.

Tournament Overview

Krasnodar began the tournament in strong fashion with an 8-0 thumping of SKA Khabarovsk. Goals came from all over the pitch, with defenders, midfielders and attackers all chipping in in a dominant display. The Bulls then dispatched FC Tosno 2-1 with this fantastic strike from midfielder Mikhael Kolomeitsev. This victory set up a showdown with Spartak Moscow with first place in the group on the line. The heavyweight clash played out as a dull affair, ending in a 0-0 draw. However, Krasnodar’s superior goal differential was enough to see them top the group. After the group stage of play, here is how the tournament’s quarterfinal matchups panned out.

 

At first glance, the draw appeared to suit Krasnodar rather well. The only traditionally strong academy on their side of the bracket was CSKA Moscow, meaning they would be able to avoid the likes of Spartak, Lokomotiv Moscow and Zenit St. Petersburg until a finals showdown. However, the young Bulls were clearly caught looking past an underrated FC Rostov team. Despite controlling the ball for much of the game and having the better chances, they lacked a cutting edge. The match played out to a 1-1 draw, and luck was not on Krasnodar’s side as they lost 5-4 on penalties. This was not the only upset of the round, either. Anzhi Makhachkala topped CSKA 3-2 and Rubin moved past Zenit on penalties. Meanwhile, Spartak earned a hard-fought 2-1 win over Lokomotiv.

After the Rostov defeat, Krasnodar were forced to play for places five through eight against the losers of the last round. They took to this task admirably with a 1-0 victory over CSKA, courtesy of winger Rustam Khalnazarov. Meanwhile, in the winners’ bracket, Anzhi continued their improbable run with a 1-0 victory over Rostov, while Spartak were able to edge past Rubin on penalties. This win set up the ultimate David vs Goliath finals showdown, as Spartak’s traditionally excellent academy would square off with the boys of Anzhi with a place in the UEFA Youth League on the line.

Krasnodar’s last game took place against Zenit with fifth place going to the winners. Alas, it was not meant to be for the young Bulls. Their previously stingy defence decided not to show up for this one and allowed three goals on the day. When Zenit were scoring goals like this, though, it was clear it was simply not their day. They were only able to muster one goal in response, courtesy of Maksim Kutovoi, in what was a disappointing end to the tournament. In the match for third place, Rubin Kazan scored a resounding 5-0 victory over a Rostov squad that simply looked overmatched.  However, the best storyline of the tournament took place in the finals. Anzhi, whose first team are relegation candidates this season, were able to score a 2-1 defeat over giants Spartak Moscow. Both goals in this game from Anzhi came by way of striker Hamid Agalarov. Agalarov was also the tournament’s highest scorer with seven goals in six games and is surely an exciting player to keep an eye on in the future. While Anzhi’s first team faces the possibility of playing in the Russian FNL next year, their youth team will be playing with Europe’s elite.

Ones to Watch

Despite Krasnodar’s disappointing performance in this tournament, they certainly had highlight performers worth pointing out. At the U18 level, these players are on the verge of being considered for first team minutes, and Krasnodar have shown that they are willing to give them that opportunity. Standout players like Ivan Ignatiev and Mahomed Shapi-Suleimanov played in this tournament just last year, and have already chipped in goals for the first team this year. It is entirely possible that some of the players from this tournament could be getting first team minutes next year, and that is an exciting prospect.It is clear, despite the poor performance in the Youth Cup, Krasnodar’s Academy is indeed bearing fruits;

READ MORE: Krasnodar’s Youth Academy Bearing Its First Fruits

Ilya Martinov, Centre-Back – Martinov was one of two Russian players selected in the Guardian’s Next Generation 2017 piece, and it is easy to see why. Standing at 185 cm and weighing in at 79 kg, Martinov is a presence on the pitch. His size is such that he clearly stands out from the rest of his peers, which makes him a monster in the air. Both offensively and defensively, it is rare that you see Martinov lose a header at this level. In addition to his physical capabilities, Martinov is a capable leader and played a key role in organizing and anchoring a backline that allowed less than one goal per game.

Maksim Kutovoi, Striker – Much like Martinov, Maksim Kutovoi is a physical specimen. At 187 cm and 77 kg, the stocky striker looks like a boy among men. What makes this even more impressive, is the fact that Kutovoi is actually playing up an age level- he’s still only 16. Even in his young age, Kutovoi tied for Krasnodar’s leading goal scorer with three goals in six games. Very comfortable with the ball at his feet, the young striker combines his size with rapid pace and is able to go around defenders, through them, or both.

Rustam Khalnazarov, Winger/Striker – Unlike his colleagues highlighted above, Rustam Khalnazarov doesn’t have any outstanding physical traits. Instead, he makes use of smart positioning and an eye for finishing to do his damage in front of goal. Playing as an inverted winger, Khalnazarov is constantly at the shoulder of his defender looking to make a run in behind. His finishing ability was nicely demonstrated in this neat little lift over CSKA’s keeper. While Khalnazarov’s ceiling does not initially seem to be as high as the other two players highlighted here because of his diminutive size. If he continues to hone his positioning and instincts and play to his strengths, he could be lethal at the next level.

 

This year’s U18 tournament was full of surprises. Krasndar’s performance was decidedly poor, especially given last year’s success. Giants like Zenit and CSKA were upset early on in the tournament, and of course, Anzhi’s shock victory over Spartak in the final was the biggest surprise of them all. The boys from Makhachkala will be playing football with Europe’s elite in a year’s time, and as for the rest of the tournament’s players, don’t be surprised when you see some of them getting minutes with your favorite Russian club next year.

Author: Will Baumgardner

College student in the United States and avid Krasnodar fan. Sergey Galitskiy is the man.

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