Now more than a third of the extra-long 2011/12 First Division season has gone, the main themes are becoming clear. Here’s a roundup of the main plotlines so far:
Alania’s bulletproof defence
Currently enjoying the attention of the world’s football trivia fans after qualifying for Europe via the Russian Cup Final without scoring a goal, Alania have gained rather less praise for their superb performance this season in the First Division. They may have been promoted in 2009 on a technicality after FK Moskva’s collapse, but they’re now heading for promotion on merit. The foundation of Alania’s success is a bulletproof defence that has kept 10 clean sheets in 14 games so far. Alania began the season with three spectacular wins, but their results since suggest a lack of creativity, with 1-0 wins fast becoming the norm. They’re also yet to face their two closest challengers so far, KamAZ and Mordovia, but a very solid defensive performance against Zhemchuzhina-Sochi’s expensively assembled attack is an excellent marker.
Next game: SKA-Energiya Khabarovsk (A), 14.06.11. A decent test here against a competent, confident defensive team who have claimed some big scalps this season. Rossiya-2 are showing it live.
At the other end of the table, former Premier Division side Luch-Energia Vladivostok never looked likely to regain their status as Europe’s easternmost top-level side, but their performance so far this season has been shocking. Four points from safety in last place, Luch have won only once this season, at home to 19th-placed Chernomorets. Manager Sergei Pavlov recently told fans that “Vladivostok should have a Premier League team”. If Luch don’t start scoring goals (they’ve netted once at home all season) and improve a patchy disciplinary record, that statement will soon sound ridiculous. Right now, their best hope looks to be Russian football’s politics: Luch are a big club and Vladivostok is a big city. A splash of state money in the coming transfer window might stop the port city’s flagship taking on water.
Next game: Volgar-Gazprom Astrakhan (H), 14.06.11. V-GA are relegation rivals with an appalling defensive record, and will be travelling long-haul to Vladivostok. If Luch can’t win this, they are in big trouble.
Sibir’s travel sickness
Yesterday’s defeat to caretaker manager Yurii Matveev’s Ural side continues the division’s worst run of away form, with one point this year from six away games. The one point they have earned, away to Alania, showed signs of promise, but even that performance needed some questionable refereeing to earn a penalty. While Alania stayed in the Premier League until the last day of the 2010 season, Sibir didn’t come close to survival. Defeats to Gazovik Orenburg and Torpedo Vladimir don’t suggest they’ll come close to promotion, despite strong home form. The problems are tactical too: against Ural players were out of position and a central midfield obsessed with Ural’s Branimir Petrovic allowed deeper-lying midfielders far too much time on the ball. Communication in defence is another worry, while a couple of players, notably veteran winger Tomas Cizek, simply looked unfit.
Next game: Chernomorets (H), 14.04.11. Should be an easy win against the defensively fragile 19th-placed side. Should.
World Cup host cities prosper
Sochi and Saransk will both be hosting World Cup games in 2018, and it’s more than a coincidence that local sides Zhemchuzhina and Mordovia are both thriving in the division they joined last year. Zhemchuzhina’s big spending is a tale of two Czechs: ex-Lokomotiv goalkeeper Marek Cech and striker Michal Papadopoulos, who made regular appearances in the Eredivisie last year with Heerenveen. Both have played solidly so far, but the real stars are creative midfielders Maxim Demenko and Kazbek Geteriev. The main weakness is some very disjointed play – at times, the players seem like they barely know one another, and this can paralyse the team. In April, this meant a total inability to close out ten-man Luch that put the eventual 1-0 win at risk. Mordovia’s success has been more of a surprise, with the only real fireworks coming in a 6-0 demolition of nine-man Khimki last Saturday. One star is Chile’s Gerson Acevedo, a creative player and a reliable goal threat, who seems to have adapted well to Russia, despite admitting that when he joined, all he knew about the place was that “it’s cold, they like vodka and there are a lot of beautiful girls”.
Next games: Yenisei v Zhemchuzhina, Mordovia v Baltika. Both games present a decent challenge of exactly the sort that both sides need to overcome. Worth a watch.
I haven’t seen much of Yenisei yet, but they’re riding high in fourth, one point off a promotion place and have put in decent performances against top sides. Nizhnyy Novgorod, who missed out on promotion last year due to Russian Football Union politics, are still in the hunt, but a 5-1 home defeat to Ural means they look fragile. Ural, in turn, are well-organised and boast a strong attack featuring pacy Andrei Chukhlei and former Amkar target man Predrag Sikimic, and could be a tempting outside bet for promotion.