I tend to provoke my inner green eyed monster when it comes to watching Champions League football, especially in these latter stages. It’s been six years now since a Russian Football Premier League club has made it to the continent’s show piece quarter final stage, the last time before that was 20 years ago, and unsurprisingly we haven’t seen a semi-final yet. As many Russian football fans can attest to, there has been little to cheer in this regard of late. Each of the last few years I’m filled up with hope, only to be let down after the winter break by a swift bulk of exits, and this season hasn’t been any different.
What has improved however is Russia’s chances of inching into Europe’s elite 6 leagues, that offers an elusive extra Champions League spot, something Russia have to contend to only a couple of at the moment. While the UEFA coefficient ranking system is regularly having its flaws pointed out or hearing cynicism of its seeming bias towards the big leagues, over the last few years Russia has gone about itself somewhat under the radar and could well be about to break past the likes of France’s Ligue 1 and Portugal’s Primeira Liga in the league rankings.
You may scoff at the notion that an extra spot in Europe can have such an upward effect on a league, but we’ve seen in recent history how a league’s impact on the continental game can suddenly switch purely with extra qualification births. The prime example being Italy losing their 4th Champions League spot to Germany ahead of the 2012/13 season. At the time Italy had dipped in performance of course, but subsequently they’ve fell into somewhat of a depression (aside from their isolated lightning rod Juventus) within European competition, the opposite of fortunes is quite clearly being felt by Germany, appearing with four teams in the knockout stages in back to back seasons from the 13/14 season.
Where Germany rebuilt their European identity was within the Europa League, something now Italy have put greater focus on as they attempt to return to Europe’s top table. Further down, the RFPL have clearly taken note of this and prioritised this as a way to collect invaluable ranking points which have now seen them move within shooting distance of the likes of France and Portugal without ever really pulling up any trees within the Champions League. Successful campaigns from the likes of Rubin Kazan, Dinamo Moscow and Anzhi Makhachkala have all contributed to Russia’s increased presence within the competition, while FC Krasnodar and Lokomotiv Moscow’s devastating displays pre-winter break have added to the pot further more.
It leaves us in a position, where the RFPL are now in with a better shout of usurping France and Portugal than ever, but this isn’t anything new. The last two years, namely Russia’s leading light Zenit have had it in their hands to accelerate their league’s fate in collecting another UCL qualification spot, both times succumbing a round too early, be it their Europa League quarter-final exit against Sevilla last season or their limp Round of 16 elimination at the hands of an ordinary Benfica this year.
Hopes were high as Zenit, Lokomotiv and Krasnodar all topped their group stages with devastating ease, the latter finishing ahead of Borussia Dortmund no less. However, then came the old chestnut of early March elimination for all three sides, brought upon in part by the fact the league schedule hadn’t returned by at least the first leg of their Round of 16/32 ties. In an ideal world we’d see more cohesion within the schedule, but given UEFA’s assumed reluctance to move their calendar back a few more weeks to benefit some of their lesser-ranked nations (Russia and Ukraine in particular) and the RFPL’s unlikeliness to return earlier from an unplayable winter break, nothing looks to be changing any time soon on this front. This concentrates focus purely on the team’s performances and results on the pitch.
Nonetheless the league is flourishing compared to their peers, so much so that a Shakhtar Donetsk led Ukrainian Premier League still trails Russia comfortably in Europe for the Russians for the foreseeable future even if the Ukrainian club do clinch the Europa League title in the coming month. The next two years indeed look promising in terms of coefficient; Portugal and France have relatively strong seasons to fall out of consideration next year (consideration of the UEFA ranking considers only the most recent 5 seasons), while Russia’s campaigns in those years are remarkably weak, unlikely to have any real negative impact on their calculation. This window of opportunity needs to be grasped, not necessarily to the degree in which the European qualified teams did this year either, but just a solid showing. Looking ahead to next season however, can a repeat of this be counted upon?
Rostov’s fairy-tale story, which if they do finish in the top two will be broadly ignored at the start of the Champions League next year given Leicester City’s title bid in England, but you can’t get away from the fact that both league’s will have in all probabilities one vastly unexperienced and under resourced side in the UCL group stage. It’s to be noted Rostov’s most recent European adventure didn’t go exactly to plan, losing to Trabzonspor in the Europa League playoffs last season.
Subsequently their UEFA ranking is poor to terrible and if they do finish in behind a crowned champion in Russia, they’ll be in the lowest unseeded pots (if they make it through the playoffs) and favourites to make a swift exit at the group stage. The other possibility however is that they are made a top seed, as Zenit benefitted from so compressively this year, by the fact Russia is guaranteed to be ranked within the top 7 European leagues, if of course Rostov are crowned Russian champions that is.
A second place finish would also pit whoever through the increasingly difficult playoff route. While UEFA have given with one hand (in terms of seeding the Russian champions), they’ve taken away with the other, as any qualifier from Russia will have to face other non-champions, increasing the likelihood of them facing an Arsenal or Villarreal as CSKA did this year facing Sporting of Portugal. Put bluntly, without any sort of romance of feeling for Rostov’s spirited title bid, purely on a coefficient level its best if they win the title, or finish third and out of UCL contention…
It may be proved to be a grandiose assumption that Russia are better off with the likes of CSKA Moscow taking part in the Champions League however. The Army club have been nothing short of terrible in recent seasons, finishing dead last in the last three UCL group stages, amidst defensively cautious displays which reeked of fear, not the experience driven potential that they undoubtedly have. A wide eyed, nothing to lose attitude of a side like Rostov in that case may be worth much more.
An intriguing end of season run in, which currently sees only 9 points separate the top 7 leaves us broadly in the dark, but the likes of Lokomotiv and Krasnodar again sniffing around the Europa League spots does give hope that the league can give another credible display at least before the knockout stages in next season’s UEL campaign. The Cup-winners spot that previously granted Rostov with their chance of progress in Europe is also likely to work to Russia’s advantage. Unless Amkar pull of two shocks in a row (Zenit in the semis, then either CSKA or Krasnodar in the final), the league standings are likely to reward down to 5th position with a place in Europe. Debatably stunting another fine underdog’s tale but demonstrably enabling a greater chance of qualifying the best 5 teams from Russia.
Now you may have read this thus far and thought, who really cares? Unless you’re a follower of a particular team involved, why should Russia be bothered about breaking into the European elite? Wouldn’t this give rise to the boom and bust culture that was so clearly demonstrated by Anzhi’s pursuit of Champions League football, which an extra spot would undoubtedly do? To answer this, in my opinion it’s not a claim to be part of mainstream western football, with the money and nonsense that goes hand in hand with it, it’s instead to regain some of the country’s strong football history that Russia has lost over the last 20 years.
Greater success in Europe doesn’t mean more overseas players by any means, the RFPL currently has a quota system in place, with an extra spot in Champions League football this wouldn’t change. The quality aspect would instead change. Even Zenit, who have the greatest brand outside of Russia have struggled to attract the sort of talent a competing Champions League outfit deserves. Andre Villas-Boas’ exit at the end of the season, may not be a loss in terms of managerial talent, but will probably accelerate the exit of the league’s best players in Brazilian striker Hulk and in the end Belgian international Axel Witsel.
Opening up extra spots in Europe to the likes of the three sleeping-giant Moscow clubs, Spartak, Lokomotiv and Dinamo, you can clearly see their financial base and status within Europe even before qualification for these big tournaments can already attract an increased quality of talent. While Rostov, Krasnodar and Terek offer Russia an untested opportunity at an up and coming side to potentially “do-a-Shakhtar” and establish themselves as a recognisable name on the continent.
It’s not just the overseas quality that’ll improve, the home players will also feel the benefit, as can be seen by the raised performances of Artem Dzyuba and Oleg Shatov this last season with regular Champions League football at hand. At present the national team is dominated by those within the Zenit and CSKA ranks, the main reason being the lure of top class European football sucks in the bulk of the country’s talent to broadly two teams. A dispersed talent pool can only lead to greater quality production and tactical flexibility which has been so clearly lacking in Russia’s one-dimensional national team situation at present.
So when the Champions League returns in August, be it Rostov, Zenit, CSKA, whoever, if you’re a lover of Russian football put your allegiances aside and root for the future of the league. And if you want someone to root against, you’ve always got the French and Portuguese to back against, let them stare back enviously at Russia for a change.
Author: Martin Lowe
Russian and Asian football follower and blogger.