“Chelsea Rubin”, and in a week, “Rubin Chelsea”. You’d be hard-pressed to find another English – Russian club pairing with such a pleasant ring to it. Rubin, in fact, takes its name from the same Latin root as ‘ruby’, hence the club’s deep red kits. ‘Chelsea’, meanwhile, originally signified ‘landing place for chalk or limestone’, but its more recent fame as a London neighborhood and popular girls’ name lends it more grace.
Chelsea are the conventional pick tonight, hosting Rubin in the first leg of the Europa League quarterfinal tie. The Londoners have faced Russian clubs twice before, CSKA in 2004 and Spartak in 2010, winning all four times by a cumulative 9-1 score. Chelsea are unbeaten in 11 European cup home games, while Rubin, despite claiming Russian Premier League titles in 2008 and 2009, have never advanced this far in Europe before.
Chelsea can also take comfort in earlier Russian – English confrontations this season. Anzhi, 3rd in the league, met both Liverpool and Newcastle, while 2nd-placed Zenit faced Liverpool. Though the Merseysiders dropped out on away goals to Zenit in the Europa League round of 32, they dominated Russia’s most decorated club in recent years for most of the tie. Back in the fall, Liverpool controlled the match against Anzhi at Anfield Road from start to finish, winning 1-0, while a junior squad in Moscow fell 1-0. Against Newcastle, Anzhi looked equals, but went down 1-0 on aggregate.
In contrast to their English counterparts, Russian clubs are open about the Europa League’s importance and traditionally field top squads. That’s a luxury few English Premier League teams can afford, competing weekly in a domestic league that far outshines the Europa League in TV exposure and revenue. And yet, despite commitment to the Europa League, CSKA and Zenit’s triumphs in the last decade notwithstanding, Russia has been unable to regularly advance deep into the competition.
The long Russian winter break is a frequent excuse, but now that Rubin have survived a frigid February and March, securing seven points in three league matches, to go with success in the two-leg ties against Atletico Madrid and Levante, there is optimism that Kurban Berdyev can motivate his men to another shocking result against Chelsea.
Ahead of tonight’s clash at Stamford Bridge, Roman Sharonov, Rubin’s 36-year-old Russian captain, told the press, “There’s no fear. Why be afraid?” Berdyev, who’s been at Rubin since 2001, emphasized the opportunity his club has facing Chelsea, “For Rubin, this is history that we’re creating for ourselves.”
It’s the right attitude for a team that just escaped in the round of 32 against defending Europa League champions Atletico Madrid. Rubin may have defeated Barcelona at Camp Nou in 2009 and won two league titles not that long ago, but Rubin still stand at a crossroads in Russian football.
Domestic success has not translated into throngs of admirers within Russia, but rather begrudging respect. The team draws modest crowds at outdated Tsentralny Stadium in Kazan, something it hopes will change with the move to a new stadium in the fall. For now, it has to deal with constant critics that bemoan its defensive style of play and question such massive investment in a club that draws poorly on TV and in the stands. Earlier this week, Vasily Utkin, one of Russia’s best-known football broadcasters and journalists, expressed his belief that “Russian football doesn’t need Rubin.” Though Utkin’s primary criticism – Kazan’s inability to generate revenue – cannot be denied, his decision to go after Rubin when plenty of other famous Russian clubs, Dinamo and Lokomotiv, for example, are just as ‘unpopular’, was indicative of the bad rap the club gets at home.
Success against Chelsea, and, possibly, a run at the Europa League trophy might finally begin to turn the tide of public opinion. In any event, for now Rubin are that rare club with an experienced, secure manager, stable pitch identity and minimum of outside distractions that accompany other successful Russian clubs such as Zenit, Spartak and Anzhi.
Spanish midfielder Pablo Orbaiz, asked to assess the team’s strategy at Stamford Bridge, had a simple answer, “Our basic principles – order, game discipline and total effort – should always remain the same.” It’s an approach that has worked wonders thus far this season in the Europa League, even as more explosive outfits Anzhi and Zenit flamed out in the previous stage.
Sharonov believes he and his teammates won’t be afraid stepping out on the Chelsea pitch, with millions worldwide tuned in for the highest-profile Europa League match of the night. Representing a club that is under-recognized at home and hardly known beyond Russian borders, the Rubin approach feels right. Incessant barking from the Anzhi, Spartak and Zenit camps about past and future greatness may only elevate the pressure their players feel under the spotlight. That’s not the case at Rubin. The team is grateful for a chance to make a little history on Thursday night and will focus on nothing more than bringing home a result after 90 minutes of play, 11 men from Russia battling 11 men from England. It’s nothing more, nothing less than that in Kurban Berdyev’s book.
Author: Andy Shenk
I discovered football when my family moved to Russia in the early 2000′s. I’ll never forget sprinting around my house after Russia qualified for Euro 2008, belting out the Russian national anthem. Since 2011, I’ve supported Anzhi in all its inspiring glory and heartbreaking dysfunction. Also Andrei Eschenko’s #1 American fan.