It goes against reason to argue that Russia deserves another Champions League spot given we’re coming off the back of one of their most dismal tournament performances to date, with both Premier League representatives exiting in the group stage prior to the winter break. However, despite their shortcomings in UEFA’s premier competition, the Russian Football Premier League is primed to overtake the Portuguese Primiera Liga in becoming Europe’s 6th best league and clinch another direct ticket to the Champions League, all this ironically hasn’t been due to their progression in the top tier tournament but their largely unnoticed performances in the Europa League over the last five years.
Considering the Russian and Portuguese elite runners over recent seasons, there’s little comparison. Porto and Benfica both qualified out of their UCL groups this season, while CSKA Moscow and FC Rostov were rarely in contention in theirs. Over the last two seasons, at least one Portuguese club has made the UCL quarter finals, something Russia hasn’t achieved for seven years. The recent head-to-head encounters haven’t exactly been promising either, after Zenit exited to Benfica in the competition’s Round of 16 last year. So it begs a question, how have Russia engineered themselves to be ahead of Portugal?
The one thing the RFPL can argue in their favour is their strength in depth, illustrated by year-on-year competitive showings in the Europa League (at least two participants have made it to the knockout stages per season over the last seven campaigns), something that hasn’t been sustained by Portugal (outside the big two), culminating in them having only one participant (Braga) in this year’s UEL group stages. While we’re often critical of Russian team performances in Europe post the winter break, the pre-winter results have been consistently high, which is probably why we’re so let down by the time it comes round to February/March. Dinamo Moscow in 2014, Lokomotiv Moscow and FC Krasnodar in 2015, and Zenit St. Petersburg and Krasnodar this last year have all dominated their group phases in the tournament, accruing regularly unrecognised but consistently valuable coefficient points.
Expectation also has a lot to do with why this promotion is going by unseen. While our hopes have often been affixed to CSKA and Zenit in the Champions League at the start of the season, we’re often blasé in the impact of the lesser sides such as Rostov this season and Krasnodar before them, with their progression almost seen as a bonus. While Zenit disappointingly crashed out of Europe two weeks ago, the former duo were highly impressive in their UEL R32 matches which were arguably tougher on paper than the Anderlecht tie Zenit were presented with.
The pressure is on Krasnodar and Rostov
The state of play currently has Russia marginally ahead of Portugal going into the second legs of the UCL R16, and the first legs of the UEL R16 this coming week. While the Russians have been pitted against much stiffer opposition (Manchester United for Rostov and Celta Vigo for Krasnodar), the fact remains we may not require another upset to move up in the coefficient at the end of the season.
It might sound negative but regrettably familiar (as I spoke last year regarding the RFPL’s chasing down of France), but the matches involving Benfica and Porto should be as keenly followed back in Russia over the coming fortnight as those involving the RFPL sides. Porto look destined to crash out, currently 2-0 down to Juventus and travelling to Turin for the second leg, while Benfica despite holding a narrow 1-0 lead, will travel to Germany to face Borussia Dortmund.
Progression for either Portuguese side would force Russia’s hand, and would require one of the remaining duo to make it to the quarters at least, not impossible but again unlikely. Much will depend on the first legs; Krasnodar travel to Spain in search of an away goal, while Rostov host Manchester United, which given some of their historic European home matches we witnessed already this season; from the win over Ajax that started the journey off back in the summer through to the icing on the cake beating Bayern Munich at the Olimp-2 Arena in November, vanquishing the Red Devils would be the cherry on top, not merely for the club but for the league as a whole.
UEFA’s Champions League changes doesn’t change much short term
If all goes Russia’s way, the RFPL would be promoted into being the “6th best league in Europe”. The last year has seen Russia fall a considerable distance behind the Top 5 leagues however, given France’s growing portfolio of quality illustrated by Monaco’s impressive UCL showings, and Lyon’s unfazed progression in the UEL knockout stages. This would under current guidelines still add an extra UCL group stage spot, meaning by the 2018/19 season we should see the top two in Russia progressing straight to the group stage, with third spot having to go through the qualifiers.
UEFA’s recent struggles with the European elite clubs who have threatened to form their very own breakaway “Super League” separate from the Champions League, has been demonstrated publicly of late. Last August, UEFA proposed that as of the start of the next European cycle (2018-2021), the top four coefficient leagues (currently Spain, Germany, England and Italy), will have guaranteed access to the group stage for their top 4 clubs, negating any uncertainty of half of their teams having to avoid elimination through the qualification stages. This motion was subsequently approved in December despite opposition from the smaller national associations.
By analysing the new format’s plans (see below), it doesn’t seem to affect the RFPL too greatly. Whether they remain where they currently are as Europe’s 7th best league (outlined in green) or they move up the in rankings to 6th (outlined in red), the same scenario that has been in action over the last few seasons will transpire ie. either they’ll be granted one or two direct group stage spots. The concern, which can only be truly assessed in hindsight once the draw takes place is the qualification path for the 2nd/3rd place finishers (outlined in yellow). Yes, there will be less spots in the group stage to play for and possibly a greater number of stages to progress through than in the current format, but in the future they can guarantee that they’ll avoid playing any Top 4 league opposition en-route.
This season is the last chance to maneuver your place up the coefficient table in time for the new format’s roll out in 2018/19. It offers a crucial chance to hang on to the coattails of the elite leagues and enforce some sort of influence in the Champions League by having three qualifiers for this stage.
Looking even further ahead, once Russia get there (even if it’s not for 2018/19, 2019/20 looks an even better opportunity to overtake Portugal), the next aim will be to cement itself in its position as a top table player. If anything should be learnt from the last few seasons of point accruing prior to the winter break, the Europa League remains the cash cow of coefficient points behind any future Champions League successes.
Author: Martin Lowe
Russian and Asian football follower and blogger.