Wednesday, 22 June 2011

Rd1 update, round 16: Pearl diving

If Zhemchuzhina-Sochi ever make it to the Champions League, I can't wait to hear Andy Townsend grapple with the name. European football may be the ambitious Caucasus side's stated goal, but the first step is getting out of the Russian First Division, and that's looking unlikely even before the half-way stage. Poor results have dogged the club all season, but now the First Division's dream team could be on the verge of financial collapse. In a week when almost all Rd1 games went rather dully according to the form book, it's time to take a examine the Pearl's* diving ambitions.

Zhemchuzhina midfielder Ricardo Baiano hasn't been paid for three months, but his mate's just texted him a great tip about finding pizza delivery work.

Zhemchuzhina's big spending, private ownership and base in a World Cup host city have made it the darling of the Russian Football Union in recent seasons, with accompanying grumbles from other team's fans about favouritism. It's not hard to see why the authorities like the club. Zhemchuzhina has all the right ingredients to be a perfect international representative for New Russia on the world stage - a glamourous (and hideously expensive) beach resort home, some international stars and even a bit of footballing pedigree from some solid mid-90s Premier League campaigns. Yet all is not well.

Despite fielding several RPL stalwarts, among them ex-Lokomotiv goalkeeper Marek Cech and former Nalchik man Kazbek Geteriev, and signing Czech international striker Michal Papadopoulos from Eredivisie side Heerenveen, the 2011-12 campaign has been far from the coronation many predicted. Shocking on-field organisation and defeats to newly-promoted minnows were worryingly predictable even before news emerged yesterday that players have started boycotting training. The entired squad has gone AWOL over three months' unpaid wages, and the authorities consider the situation serious enough for league president Igor Yefremov to issue a statement best summed up as "nothing to see here, folks". Just before the season began, a flurry of reports emerged that the club was in financial difficulty. Many observers dismissed this as a crude, if unusual, publicity stunt from a club craving name recognition, especially considering that reports of a "rescue" followed within hours - the theory being that the club's beach-resort image was simply too useful to too many a people, a team too ideal to fail.

That theory is now being tested to destruction. OneDivision now reports that Zhemchuzhina owner Dimitrii Yakushev is in talks with the club's investors and that ten squad members have gone unpaid for so long that they now qualify as free agents under Russian rules. One unnamed player said: "We respect [Stanislav] Salamich [Cherchesov - the manager], he's not getting any money either. But why should we suffer?" Thoughts of promotion have vanished, replaced by worries about survival. Fans of teams not blessed with Zhemchuzhina's friends in high places have reacted scathingly to the trouble at the "political project" and a furious debate is raging on forums, with some claiming the whole business is "another bloody PR move". This seems to be the real thing, though - head of marketing Andrei Malosolov is reportedly looking for a new job.

Working out the financial health of a Russian business is always tricky and usually impossible (I'm a business journalist most of the time), but Zhemchuzhina's footballing troubles are easier to diagnose. The team is currently seventh, seven points off the promotion places. A defeat on Friday to Shinnik, however, is glaringly likely if the team aren't training, and that could place Zhemchuzhina as low as 12th. The match is a home game, which may at least make it easier to persuade the squad to turn up.

Last time out, a 2-1 away defeat to Sibir was marred by some "interesting" refereeing, with both Sibir goals coming from doubtfully awarded penalties**. Cherchesov said afterwards: "If that's a ref, I'm Mother Teresa".

It would be wild speculation to suggest that dodgy decisions might result from someone in financial trouble not paying their dues - but in Russian football, who knows?

* Pearl is Zhemchuzhina translated into English. Rather kinder to Andy Townsend.

**To see the dodgy pens and decide for yourself, here's a video of the match. One seems to be a handball awarded for a header, the other a spot of bodychecking outside the box. Then again, Zhemchuzhina's defending elsewhere in the game is pretty poor too.

Around the grounds

Since almost every game in Round 16 ended as expected from a fixture list that pitted promotion contenders against relegation scrappers, there's not a lot to talk about. Alania and Mordovia recorded formulaic, if not particularly impressive, wins and continue to hold the promotion places, two points ahead of a chasing pack lead by FC Nizhnyy, who also won. KamAZ fell away slightly with an unexpected 0-0 draw at home to Baltika, while the only real shock was Yenisei's 1-0 loss at home to Chernomorets. The game wasn't broadcast and there's no video available, allowing fans' conspiracy theories about the ref to flourish unchecked. One claimed Aleksei Sukhoi must have been bribed so much, "he'll be buying a new flat". Dinamo Bryansk, one of the dullest teams I've ever seen, played out an uninspiring goalless draw with Ural.

Wednesday, 15 June 2011

Rd1 weekly update: Round 15

The 15th round of games in the Russian First Division saw only one real shock, but continued a few of this year's more surprising trends.

Yenisei's triumph

The highlight was Yenisei's 4-2 win over a Zhemchuzhina side that imploded with eight minutes to go, conceding three, including this rather fine free kick from Valerii Korobkin.

I can't offer you a link to full highlights because OneDivision haven't posted any, despite showing the game on a rather dodgy stream on Tuesday. What I saw of the game in between the stream's many crashes pointed to the same organisational confusion that has marked Zhemchuzhina's performances all season. Goalkeeper Marek Cech admitted that Yenisei "deserved to win" because of "big mistakes in defence" on the part of Zhemchuzhina.

Yenisei, by contrast, make up for a lack of big signings with solid teamwork and great play on the break. Now fourth and two points off the top, Yenisei are in an unlikely promotion chase that shatters recent seasons' trend of awful performances by recently-promoted Siberian sides in the First Division.

Games in brief

SKA-Energia are holding 8th place based on a good home record and some very handy long shots. Goalkeeper Anton Kozorez was the stand-out performer in a 1-1 draw at home to Alania. Mordovia look like a plausible RPL side for next season and haven't lost since April. Tuesday's result was a routine if slightly clumsy 3-1 win over Baltika marked by good ball retention. Among the other promotion challengers, FC Nizhnyy's 3-1 win over Fakel and KamAZ's 3-2 win over Torpedo Moscow were fairly straightforward.

Elsewhere, a lot of former RPL teams had disappointing results - Sibir unable to beat Chernomorets at home, while Luch remain last with a 1-0 home defeat to Volgar-Gazprom Astrakhan marred by some truly dreadful finishing. Shinnik lost 2-1 to Ural, with the Yaroslavl side's Aleksandr Sukhov scoring a long-range opener that seemed to stun even him (0:35 on video). No video is available for Gazovik Orenburg's 1-1 draw in Bryansk, but it was apparently exceptionally dull.

Managerial switches

- Khimki needed a last-minute equaliser to draw 3-3 away at Torpedo Vladimir and now sit 17th, in the relegation zone with an anonymous and shallow squad. This can only increase the pressure on head coach Aleksandr Grigoryan, who received the full support of the board two weeks earlier in the aftermath of a 6-0 thumping at home by Mordovia (although first-choice keeper Roman Berezovsky was away playing for Armenia). He may be one of the most decorated managers in Russian women's football history, but that's unlikely to cut much ice with Khimki's boisterous fan base.

- Volgar-Gazprom caretaker boss Aleksandr Krotov has been given the job full time after impressing with wins over Fakel, Khimki and Luch that lifted his side out of the relegation zone. He may end up spending a lot of time introducing himself - Krotov has no Wikipedia page and a search brings up a crashing pilot, a wedding photographer and an author of Stalker fan-fiction ahead of him.

- Sibir's director of football Dmitrii Cheryshev, best known outside Russia for a solid La Liga goalscoring record at Gijon in the mid-90s, says he has been approached for Volga Nizhnyy Novgord in the RPL. Volga reportedly want him in the job by the end of the week, which would leave Sibir with rapidly fading hopes for a return to the RPL and lacking leadership in the upcoming transfer window. Even if Volga don't pick him, the speculation could end his time at Sibir. For Volga, he would be an unknown quantity, since he's only previously run one of Real Madrid's kids' sides. He apparently performed well, although with a team from the Real academy, that wouldn't be too difficult.

Tuesday, 7 June 2011

Russian First Division: Top stories

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.

Luch’s collapse

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.