Alania Vladikavkaz, by their own admission, are not having a good season. Promoted back from the First Division after a season spent playing catch-up to Mordovia in the second tier, they currently sit joint bottom of the Russian Premier League, having managed just three wins and 22 goals in their 24 games so far. As if that wasn’t bad enough, they also managed to get themselves knocked out of the national cup competition by lowly FC Tyumen, a Second Division side from east of the Urals whose past achievements include setting the lowest ever points total in a top flight title. For fans hoping for a glorious renaissance after a brief period in the wilderness, it has not been forthcoming.
Off the field, the club has provided a less than perfect platform for sporting success. At first glance, all the ingredients were in place for a successful return to top flight football – legendary moustache and club icon Valery Gazzaev presiding over all from his lofty position in the president’s office, with his son Vladimir controlling affairs from the managerial hotseat. However, it would not take long for the cracks to appear – Vladimir’s sole season of managerial came in a First Division campaign which saw them finish runners-up despite having the best squad, and the junior Gazzaev was soon found wanting at a higher level. Before the turn of the year, the scene was set for the most spectacular of salvations, the father sacking the son and returning to the dugout himself to lift Alania from their doldrums.
It was not to be. Defeat after defeat followed, a season which promised so much after a 5-0 thrashing of Terek in the third round reaching its nadir with back-to-back hammerings, a 4-0 home loss to Gazzaev’s old CSKA side coming hot on the heels of a 5-1 embarrassment at the hands of Amkar, a side whose own ambitions barely reach over the middle of the Premier League table. Goals have been like gold dust in the North Caucasian fortress city, and whilst Danilo Neco has found the net nine time – three from the penalty spot – no other player has hit the target more than three times.
If the Gazzaev dynasty could not find a saviour from within, then perhaps the government would send forth a rescuer, a source of hope for the long-suffering people of Vladikavkaz to rally round and pin their hopes on. At the start of the season, Alania could not even boast of a title sponsor, and so it was with much fanfare that RusHydro, the largest generator of power in Russia, announced a deal to have their name emblazoned on the famous stripes. With ample success achieved by similar schemes in St Petersburg with Gazprom and Kazan under the Tatar government, could the hydro-electric company generate much-needed victories for Alania?
The answer, quite emphatically, has been no. Recent news from Vladikavkaz revealed that the club’s players have gone unpaid for the best part of three months, reducing the dynasty to little more than farce and failing to provide a way out of the hole that the club appeared to have dug for itself. Once home to guaranteed 20,000+ fans, Alania’s Spartak stadium this season averages just 13,000 – not a poor figure by Russian standards, but a far cry from the capacity crowds once attracted to games against the country’s elite clubs.
Thankfully, the wisdom of Gazzaev has not been completely shattered by the events unfolding around him, although the handful of fans who travelled to the aberration in Perm would likely argue otherwise. Before the full extent of the club’s financial difficulties – hardly a unique occurrence in Russia – became known, the wily old manager took to the transfer market during the period of winter hibernation, picking up some good players who undoubtedly brought strength to a weak Alania squad. Ognen Vranjes showed plenty of potential at Krasnodar before his move, while Renan Bressan, the Brazilian playing for Belarus, had been a shining light in a strong BATE side before his €3.5m move. The return to Vladikavkaz of former captain Georgi Gabulov, less than a year after he was lured away by the money of Anzhi,also served to please the fans. Quite where the money came from, no-one is too sure, but nevertheless they arrived.
By far the most high-profile signing of the winter however, was a certain Roysthon Drenthe. The move was agreed in December, but few genuinely believed it when it was completed in February – Roysthon Drenthe, former European under-21 champions, Feyenoord’s future, €14m signing for Real Madrid, came to Vladikavkaz for nothing but a wage he is yet to receive, and the footballing world is still shaking its head in disbelief.
His arrival has not yet sparked an unstoppable run of form up the Premier League table, but his influence, along with the impact of Gazzaev’s other, less heralded winter signings, may just provide the hope that Alania’s fans need in what is a desperate situation. After conceding nine goals in two games, the team improved to hold an admittedly stuttering Anzhi to a goalless draw in Makhachkala, an unlikely result given the vast difference in fortunes on and off the field. With a much-needed point to their name, Alania returned home to host Mordovia, the side that pipped them to the First Division title and the club directly ahead of them in the table. Defeat would have opened the gap between the sides to six points, and with the relegation play-off a point further away, their season would have been over.
Yet, when his club needed him most, Drenthe delivered. Just ten minutes into the match he assumed penalty taking duties after a foul in the Mordovia box, sending David Yurchenko the wrong way to give Alania the lead. Then, on the stroke of half time he found space after cutting into the penalty area, and Bressan’s ball found the unlikely wearer of the 87 shirt to fire in off the near post. Finally, with time ticking away and the game finely poised after Ruslan Mukhametshin cut halved the deficit, Drenthe burst between two defenders, collecting Gabulov’s glorious no-look pass and finishing neatly to seal his own hat-trick and a huge win for his club.
Whether nor not Alania are able to build on that victory over the remaining weeks of the season remains to be seen, but with just six games remaining to make up four points on Krylya Sovetov, they need to work fast. At the weekend, they have the ideal opportunity to do so as they travel to Samara to take on the Wings. If Drenthe and co. are in good form, they could pile the pressure on their struggling hosts. Lose, and their resurrection could be over before it ever truly began. Whatever the outcome, one man in particular has had a remarkable impact.