Week 26 in the Premier League only added more vigor and intrigue to the title chase and a cluttered Europa League field. Building on Saturday’s results – Dinamo, Terek and Lokomotiv each dispatched lower-table opponents – Sunday’s matches saw Spartak close the gap on 3rd-place Anzhi, while Rubin kept Zenit in the hunt for 1st with a clinical 2-0 home win over CSKA.
But it was Krasnodar, the southern capital of Russian football, that played host to the most thrilling match of the weekend and one of the best this spring in the Premier League.
Kuban Krasnodar fans packed the local stadium, 30,000-strong, for the match with two-time reigning Premier League champions, Zenit. Kuban sat three points off a spot in the Europa League; Zenit – four points back of CSKA , with the Army Men preparing to kick off in Kazan against Rubin a few hours later.
The sun beat down in Krasnodar all afternoon and the play on the field matched the intensity. Zenit’s 35-year-old midfielder Konstantin Zyryanov put the visitors ahead in the 6th minute, but Kuban, on a remarkable run of five consecutive draws under Leonid Kuchuk, struck back within the half hour on Daniel Niculae’s 20-yard bullet and a lucky bounce for Ivelin Popov in the box.
Neither side was dominant and Zenit, despite the pressure of the title chase, deservedly leveled the match in the 66th minute, thanks to Igor Denisov’s sharp onside pass to Danny, who just dinked the ball past a scrambling Aleksandr Belenov.
Danny, who scrambled to grab the ball from the net and return it to midfield, reflected Zenit’s urgency to secure three points yesterday. Luciano Spalletti paced the sideline in a light blue polo shirt, his agitation hardly hidden by his tense, muscular frame. But Kuban stood firm against Zenit’s pressure. Vladimir Bystrov wasted an excellent chance in the 86th minute after the ball landed at his feet a few yards out in the box and as the clock wound down Zenit looked doomed to a draw.
Yet Kuban, forced to play on the counter most of the second half, had one last surprise up its sleeve. Four minutes were added, and with the 94th minute expiring, one-time Zenit man Aleksey Ionov went streaking downfield, neck-and-neck with Nicholas Lombaerts, and brought down a deep pass just outside the box. Vyacheslav Malafeev came out to meet him, but Ionov’s shot slipped by. As the crowd roared, bathed by the warm evening sun, Ionov’s ball collided with the near post and bounced back harmlessly for Lombaerts to clear away.
The final whistle blew soon after, and for Zenit relief mingled with frustration. Just one point of three salvaged with one month to play in the league. Yet, a few hours later, after CSKA’s 2-0 surrender in Kazan, the drama of the day finally resolved, St. Petersburg could point to that post in Krasnodar as a crucial turning point. Just three points back, and in possession of the tie-breaker, Zenit’s remaining schedule – Alania, @Rostov, Volga, @Amkar – couldn’t be more favorable, especially with CSKA yet to face Terek, Lokomotiv and Kuban.
Rubin’s victory, meanwhile, was much needed after recent sluggish draws with Rostov and Amkar. On the heels of Spartak’s similarly rejuvenating 2-0 win over Anzhi, Rubin maintain positioning for Europa League play next season. Ignored time and again by fans and pundits alike, Rubin have shown an ability this season to produce big results when least expected to. They cruised through the group stage of the Europa League, including a 3-0 win over Inter, despite a poor start in the league; halted league-leading Anzhi 2-1 in late October; and toppled Atletico Madrid and Levante to reach a European quarterfinal match-up with Chelsea. Sunday’s win over CSKA was undoubtedly the biggest win of the domestic season. Now Kurban Berdyev’s men travel to Makhachkala for the proverbial six-point tie. Another win would put them 3rd.
If Rubin do in fact pull out a victory at Anzhi Arena, Guus Hiddink’s squad will be in full-fledged crisis mode. Winter dreams of a championship have been reduced to hoping the club can hold onto a bronze medal and the club’s best-ever finish (Anzhi finished 4th back in 2000). Defensive inconsistency has been Makhachkala’s curse this spring, largely because of Chris Samba’s move to QPR. Conceding a quick goal to Rubin, just as they did to Spartak, could spell doom given Kazan’s gifted backline.
Spartak will be happy to be back in the hunt for a medal, level with Rubin on 44 points, but for the Red-Whites championships are the only real prize worth fighting for. Even the workmanlike 2-0 Sunday win was clouded by Emmanuel Emenike’s knee injury late in the game, not 40 minutes after he’d been on the pitch for Spartak for the first time since November. He’s likely gone for the season now.
The three matches Saturday proved remarkably similar. Dinamo, Lokomotiv and Terek each earned victories at home – 3-1, 3-1 and 2-1 – respectively. Dinamo’s Dan Petrescu won the battle of Romanian coaches over Mordovia’s Dorinel Monteanu, Lokomotiv’s Croat Slaven Bilic won the Yugoslav battle with Rostov’s Montenegrin Miodrag Bozhovic and Terek stayed alive in the Europa League hunt with a brace from Polish midfielder Maciej Rybus.
Surprisingly, the bookend matches to the weekend, Volga – Krylia Sovetov and Alania – Krasnodar, ranked with Kuban – Zenit in the top three for excitement and unpredictability. Volga and Krylia came into Friday’s match separated by one point and both at high risk of ending up in the relegation playoffs with the 3rd and 4th-place teams from Russia’s Football National League. A draw would help secure against outright relegation, but do little to improve either team’s chances of ensuring safety in 12th place.
Though Krylia began brightly and could easily have struck first, referee Timur Arslanbekov awarded the home side a contentious penalty and Andrei Karyaka converted in the 39rd minute. Volga kept Krylia at bay in the second half, until Arslanbekov whistled for the second penalty of the night, this time in Krylia’s favor. Luis Caballero sent the ball just past Mikhail Kerzhakov’s fingertips into the bottom left corner to level the match with about 10 minutes to play.
With the match winding down, Arslanbekov distinguished himself one final time, awarding Krylia a second penalty, perhaps the most dubious of the evening. Caballero came forward – his coach, Gadzhi Gadzhiev, said after the match that he had wanted to Ilya Maksimov to make the attempt – and went the same direction as before, but this time Kerzhakov stopped him to preserve a draw for Volga.
Three days later, on a pleasant, late-April evening in Vladikavkaz, Alania took the pitch against Krasnodar with the season hanging in the balance. Three points were vital if Alania were to have any hope of avoiding automatic relegation. The match began about as poorly as could be imagined, with Joaozinho and Wanderson combining to put the dynamic visitors on top 2-0 about 10 minutes into the 2nd half. Ognjen Vranjes, however, pulled one back in the 61st, then Welinton turned Spartak Stadium into a madhouse in the 72nd with an equalizer. After Krasnodar’s Ruslan Nakhushev was shown red in the 76th, it looked for the world like Alania would complete the comeback. They pounded the ball into the box repeatedly, but came up just short of a winner. Unable to find the finishing touch, tragedy struck for the hosts in the 93rd minute, when Wanderson silenced the crowd for good with his second of the night. 3-2 to short-handed Krasnodar.
Four weeks remain in the Russian Premier League. Anzhi – Rubin and CSKA – Terek headline next weekend’s line-up. With spring finally arrived across central and northern Russia, field conditions and attendance can only build from week to week. Let’s hope the play on the field and the drama continues apace.
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.