Monday, 2 December 2013

He is the walrus: how Leonid Kuchuk became Eastern Europe's most exciting coach

Leonid Kuchuk is not impressed

Leonid Kuchuk would be a perfect fit for English football, not just because of his attractive high-pressure, fast-attacking style, but because his surname would be perfect for any "I am the walrus" based chants.
A virtual unknown until this year but now coaching the Russian league leaders, Kuchuk is an unlikely sensation - after all, he's a 54-year-old Belarusian with the unsmiling face of a Soviet bureaucrat.
His gruff style was showcased in a side-of-the-pitch interview after going top of the league on Monday. Asked how it felt, he grunted: "It's too early to congratulate me, thank you very much," and walked off.
Still, none of this has stopped him taking Lokomotiv Moscow to the top of the league ahead of bigger-spending Zenit St. Petersburg, and putting another nail in the coffin of his once-hyped predecessor at Loko, Slaven Bilic.
Kuchuk has much the same squad that Bilic did when he took Loko to ninth last season and earned himself the sack. Defence and attack are unchanged, with only the arrival of Lassana Diarra and playmaker Mbark Boussoufa in midfield, both signed on the cheap amid the wreckage of Anzhi Makhachkala, and even then only after stalwart midfielder Denis Glushakov was sold to Spartak.
Kuchuk has turned Senegalese striker Dame N'Doye into a goal machine up front, a necessary step when the rest of his strikeforce consists of the overpaid and under-motivated Roman Pavlyuchenko, Felipe Caicedo and Victor Obinna, English Premier League dead wood all.
The biggest transformation has been to Brazilian winger Maicon, who won the under-20 World Cup with Brazil  in 2010 but whose early promise looked lost after two ineffectual seasons at Loko under Bilic and Jose Couceiro. Now, he is a revelation, his game more focused on slicing in from wide with perfectly-timed high-speed runs. Under Bilic, he mostly just chased the ball.
In defence, Spurs cast-off Vedran Corluka has become a reliable presence rather than a liability, while midfielder Alexander Samedov, whose set-pieces were a rare bright point in the Bilic regime, remains as good as ever.
Kuchuk didn't just coast into Lokomotiv, however. He turned up in Russia in January after last season's surprise package FC Kuban fell out with their abrasive coach Yuri Krasnozhan. Set the task of keeping Kuban on track for a first-ever European campaign, he did just that.
At the time, Kuchuk seemed like a stop-gap, a man who seemed to have got the job through Kuban's notorious links with agents. After all, he'd hardly been setting the world alight with Arsenal Kiev, and while he did have six Moldovan titles to his name, those were earned in a division about as competitive as the midfield battles in Paul Scholes' Sunday League matches.
Come the summer, Kuchuk just stopped answering Kuban management's phone calls, telling them he'd gone on holiday and didn't want to be disturbed. In reality, he was busy in talks with Lokomotiv, a club desperate for the known quantity of a Russian-speaking coach after the costly Bilic failure.
Now it's December, almost a year after Kuchuk's low-profile arrival in Russia and he's ruling the roost. Fittingly, his team took the league lead with a commanding 3-1 win over Kuban, now managed by Victor Goncharenko, the 36-year-old who took Europe by storm when his BATE Borisov side beat Bayern last year in the Champions League.
But he's not the rising star now. No, strange as it may seem, Leonid is the Walrus. Kuchuk-Kuchuk!

Thursday, 24 October 2013

A few quick thoughts on the racism allegations from CSKA-Man City last night.

I didn’t hear any racist chanting, and, I think, neither did anyone else in the media seats, but then it only takes a small group on the far side of the pitch. I have no reason to doubt Yaya Toure’s account - he’d understand what was being sung, since he speaks pretty good Russian, the legacy of his two years with Metalurg Donetsk.
With the racism and the utterly awful pitch dominating the agenda, last night set an awful example for Russian football. The playing surface was partly made of sand, painted green in places, but they couldn’t even do that right - it was a different shade of green from the grass. It followed CSKA having to play Viktoria Plzen in St. Petersburg this month because the Russian capital (a city of 11 million!) didn’t have a suitable pitch.
Racism is still treated softly in Russia. I remember one case when police caught a guy who threw a banana at Roberto Carlos, paraded him in front of the cameras and then admitted they were letting him go because what he did didn’t actually break Russian law.
To illustrate it another way - in March last year, I was watching a second-tier game in the bitter cold. In front of me, a father was teaching his five-year-old son to roll snowballs and throw them at the one black player on the pitch, saying: “Come on, son, hit the n*****!”*
On the last day of last season, that same black player, Dacosta Goore, was at the same ground, this time playing against Spartak Moscow, probably Russia’s best supported team. Goore was pelted with racist abuse from the start. Six minutes in, he snapped and showed the Spartak fans the middle finger. He was sent off and banned for two matches, while Spartak were fined a paltry $15,000 - one of the few instances where the FA explicitly admitted it was racist abuse rather than standard “offensive chanting” where the max fine is $6,000.
The one positive thing to come out of CSKA-Man City? Toure’s statement about black players in 2018: “If we aren't confident at the World Cup, coming to Russia, we don't come.”
A boycott is hugely unlikely, but the very possibility of black players refusing to play at Russia 2018 is just about the only thing that could jolt the Russian government into action on racism.

*I know the account from that first match seems like a cliche. It really did happen - Torpedo Moscow v Alania Vladikavkaz at the Streltsov. Ex-Watford striker Tamas Priskin scored the winner.

Monday, 10 June 2013

Capello's pride

Fabio Capello seems to take pride in being stubborn and unbending and it's usually served him well.
His very reputation as an authoritarian makes his players and bosses less likely to try to challenge him.
Russia's 1-0 defeat to Portugal on Friday, however, showed one area where the man Russians call Don Fabio needs to swallow his pride.
On 67 minutes, lone striker Alexander Kerzhakov was tiring and all Capello had at his disposal to replace him was Fyodor Smolov, who had started one game in 2013 and last scored a competitive goal in July. Smolov came on and did nothing, Capello lost his unbeaten record in charge of Russia.
He wouldn't have had this problem if not for his insistence on shutting out Pavel Pogrebnyak.
Early in his reign, Capello dropped three Russian heroes of the Guus Hiddink era - Pogrebnyak, Andrei Arshavin and Roman Pavlyuchenko - and made a decisive break with the past. He's been proved partly right, since Arshavin and Pavlyuchenko spent last season in lucrative semi-retirement.
Pogrebnyak, however, has been in the English Premier League for 18 months without looking glaringly out of place, while Russia have a severe lack of depth in forward roles.
Kerzhakov remains the clear first choice, but tends to lose his nerve and shooting accuracy in big games, while Alexander Kokorin is a huge emerging talent but prone to injury (he missed the Portugal game with chronic tendonitis).
Pogrebnyak would offer a physical presence off the bench and also has the advantage of having regularly faced good defenses, something often lacking in the Russian league where Kerzhakov and Kokorin play.
Russia sorely need a third-choice striker and Smolov is not the man for the job. The sooner Pogrebnyak comes back into the fold, the more use he could be at the World Cup.