Season Preview: SKA Khabarovsk

SKA's homefield in Khabarovsk. Photo: Andshel

SKA’s Lenin Stadium in Khabarovsk. Photo: Andshel

Based in the Far East, near China, Japan and North Korea, SKA Khabarovsk was the team that none of the Premier League clubs wanted promoted from the FNL last season. However, they have more than earned their right to participate in the top flight after beating Orenburg in a promotion/relegation playoff a couple of months ago. Although the other Premier League clubs  are no doubt annoyed by SKA’s appearance in the top flight this season, there is also a lot of intrigue which has gathered interest from around the world given the immense travel time (across seven time zones in some cases) that will be involved in any SKA game for either the home or away side.

The Army Men will be simply looking to survive in the Premier League this season and the romantic in many onlookers hopes they can do just that. However, their signings in this summer transfer window have been relatively low key with manager Aleksey Poddubskiy generally picking up players from the lower divisions. Additionally, a couple of key players from last season’s promotion campaign have moved onto pastures new  – most notably defender Igor Udalyi and defensive midfielder Pavel Karasev who have left for Anzhi Makhachkala. None of this bodes well for the upcoming season.

Head coach

Aleksey Poddubskiy is relatively new to the management game and this head coach role at SKA is his first permanent management position. However, he came in and built on the foundations built by Andrey Gordeev (now Russia U18 coach) and Aleksandr Grigoryan (now at Anzhi Makhachkala) to achieve promotion from the FNL in his six matches in charge last season – losing just once.

Poddubskiy has been involved with SKA for almost his entire career; both on and off the pitch. The 45-year-old made over 450 appearances for the Khabarovsk side in two separate spells at the club and has been involved in the coaching set-up at SKA since 2013 where he has mainly been assistant manager but has also stepped into the lead role on a caretaker basis on a couple of occasions.

In his six games in permanent charge, Poddubskiy has fielded a 4-5-1 formation and we are unlikely to see him switch from a system which has brought him success so far.

Greatest strength

This may seem a bit cliché, however, you cannot avoid the location factor. The immense distance that teams will have to travel to reach the Lenin Stadium will no doubt take its toll on the visiting sides. It is no surprise that we have seen several ‘big’ clubs go to the far east and suffer shock defeats – including Spartak Moscow at Khabarovsk in the Russian Cup last season. Furthermore, SKA were undefeated in their final five home matches of the 2016/17 FNL campaign, including that playoff match against Orenburg.

In terms of strengths on the pitch, Khabarovsk’s defence looked pretty good last season, particularly towards the end, with six consecutive clean sheets in a run stretching from 12th April to 10th May. However, as mentioned earlier, they have lost a couple of key components in that defensive unit so they may struggle to keep clean sheets at Premier League level.

Greatest weakness

We again come back to the location. There had been talk that SKA would be able to play some of their away matches in blocks (for example, all of their away matches at Moscow-based sides in one block), however, barring a change to the current fixture list, this does not look like happening. This travel time will doubtless take its toll on the players and, additionally, given the fact they are now in the Premier League, these long trips are likely to become more expensive – placing real strain on the club’s small budget.

On the pitch, the forward line was a major problem last season and their record of just 45 goals scored in 38 matches was the worst of the top four FNL sides. The fact they have not signed a forward, never mind a proven RPL one,  in this transfer window makes you think they could really struggle for goals this year.

Key player

Defensive midfielder Evgeni Balyajkin has been signed from fellow Siberian side Tom Tomsk and could be a huge player for SKA this season. Although he has a big task in filling in the boots of the recently departed Pavel Karasev, the 29-year-old has a lot of Premier League experience, including two title wins from his time at Rubin Kazan, which could be vital to a team who are making their top flight debut.

Young starlet

SKA actually have quite an old squad with no really young players likely to break through this season. However, they do have a good prospect in the form of 24-year-old forward Juan Lescano who was on the books of both Liverpool and Real Madrid in his academy days. The Argentine only scored eight goals last season in the FNL but will be determined to make his mark in the Russian top flight this campaign in order to gather a bit of interest from Western European clubs. Although 24 is seen as relatively old in modern football, he still has time to improve himself and forge a decent career, starting with this season.

Season prediction

It is very hard to see SKA coping with the higher standard of the Premier League this season as they have not really invested in the squad, particularly in their lacklustre forward line, and have lost a couple of important players to Premier League rivals. This all adds up to them being prime relegation candidates.

The much talked about location could go one of two ways but I suspect it will have a damaging effect on SKA. In fact, given the amount of money they will have to spend travelling around at a higher class than they did in the FNL, it would not surprise me if we see SKA hit some serious financial trouble at some point in the season.

Author: Thomas Giles

Studied Russian at University which peaked my interest in the country and led to me living there for two years. Having already been a big football fan in England, I started following the Russian league and the chaos that goes with it during my time there. Whilst I am the first to admit that the action on the pitch is far from exciting, I find the politics and history of Russian football fascinating.

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