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The Kate Partridge column: Russia's European dreams

Interested in the latest developments in one of the fastest-emerging football nations? Russia is quickly becoming a major player in world football and club owners are spending huge amounts on big-name players to compete with Europe's elite.

Total Football is delighted to welcome Moscow-based sports reporter and West Bromwich Albion fan Kate Partridge to our team of columnists.

Kate, who works for the RT television channel, will be bringing us an insight into Russia's emergence as a force to be recokoned with in world football.

Russia - now a more powerful football nation than Holland

I’ve never been one to gleefully savour the expression “UEFA league coefficients”. Instead, I admit I used to hear the words: “Cue: glazed expression” and take a brief mental snooze.

However, with a bit of research, I understand this: in terms of European football, Russia ranks sixth behind England, Spain, Italy, Germany and France – and ahead of heavyweights such as Portugal and the Netherlands.

And for Russia, in this pivotal extended domestic campaign and – on so many levels – Europe is key.

The Russian football season traditionally always ran within one calendar year, and in tune with the changing seasons: i.e. start in the March thaw, and finish in the onset of snow in November. However, this year, the Russian Premier League decided that such a programme was detrimental to the form of its teams competing in the European competitions, which played throughout the winter.

So, the transitional 2011-12 campaign kicked-off, way back in March, and will run for 18 long months, across two calendar years, finishing in May 2012, and a winter break sandwiched within. And next season, the 2012-13 campaign will run along similar lines to the leagues in Western Europe (though with a longer break in the middle). And in the meantime, to stave off the effects of exhaustion and injuries, an extra transfer window has been mooted.

European aspirations

Thus, the infrastructure points towards Europe. Now, enter the chairmen with European aspirations. Foremost among these is dynamic Dagestani tycoon, Suleiman Kerimov. The 45-year-old billionaire bought his little-known native club Anzhi in January, signed Brazilian World Cup legend Roberto Carlos, and stated to a sceptical media his goal for the Russian Premier League side was Champions League football.

Since then, the acquisition of Samuel Eto’o from Inter Milan, following that of Chelsea’s Yuri Zhirkov, as well as continuous reports linking the visionary chairman with the world’s best players and managers, have lifted Anzhi onto the same plateau as uber-rich Manchester City and Paris St. Germain as the teams to join in terms of ambition – and cash.

While over at Lokomotiv Moscow, Russia’s answer to Karren Brady is going full steam in her plans to elevate the twice former champions into the ranks of Europe’s elite.

The appointment of Olga Smorodskaya, the first and only female chairman in the country, was greeted with open cynicism. However, some of the doubters have been silenced since the arrival of Portuguese coach Jose Couceiro in July, who began his reign unbeaten in the league for four months.

Despite recently stuttering in their domestic form, Loko are still doing well in the Europa League, having qualified for the Round of 32, and with a shot at finishing top of Group L.

Winter break

So at the beginning of November, after the 16 top-flight teams had faced each other both home and away, the league split into two halves: the Championship Group and the Relegation Group, whose titles speak for themselves, as well as the former also deciding the European places. Then two sets of matches then followed before the winter break, which is now in force.

With every game like a Cup final, the new Championship mini-league couldn’t have kicked-off on November 18th with two more fantastic Friday night fixtures. First up, defending champions and league leaders, Zenit St. Petersburg, at home to parvenus Anzhi, back in a relatively disappointing eighth.

Yet, as is often the case with mouth-watering ties, they often leave the viewer parched. With Zenit missing injured top scorer Aleksandr Kerzhakov, a gritty game of eleven bookings finished goalless, with the visitors losing Mbark Boussoufa to two yellow cards within one late minute.

Cue second-placed, but injury-hit, CSKA’s chance to go level on points at the top, should they triumph at home to an inconsistent Rubin Kazan. They didn’t. Alan Kasaev opened for the twice former champions after 16 minutes. Seidou Doumbia levelled with a penalty, then had the chance to put the Armymen ahead with another spot-kick in the second-half, which he duly did. Or so he thought.

The strike was ruled out for encroachment, retaken – and missed. And Aleksandr Ryazantsev soon banged in the winner at the other end for Rubin – 2-1. CSKA coach Leonid Slutskiy was not a happy man. Zenit stayed two points clear.

Relegation scrap

Saturday 19th was all about the Relegation Group, from which two sides would ultimately go down. The phrase “relegation scrap” was invented for games such as that between new boys Volga and Amkar, which had more bookings than a cheap comedian – 11, and one straight red – as the visitors came back to beat their nine-man hosts, 2-1, despite missing a penalty at the death.

Meanwhile Terek, formerly managed by Dutch legend Ruud Gullit, drew 0-0 with Krylya Sovetov. And Group leaders Krasnodar held off second-bottom Spartak Nalchik’s fight back to win, 2-1 – the visitors seeing scorer Miodrag Djudovic also sent off with seconds remaining.

Could Sunday prove equally as eventful? Yes. In Moscow, Aleksandr Kokorin netted the decisive goal as third-placed Dynamo kept up the pressure on the top two with a 2-1 win at home to Dan Petrescu’s Kuban. While the capital’s bragging rights went to Spartak. Emmanuel Emenike’s first-half brace giving Valery Karpin’s men a 2-0 win over stumbling Lokomotiv on the plastic turf of the Luzhniki Stadium.

At the very bottom, impoverished Tom – whose players had threatened to strike for non-payment of wages – also had to stomach an unflattering 3-1 defeat at Rostov. After agreeing a deal to be paid by the middle of December, the beleaguered Tomsk side then had to endure having last defender, Viktor Stroev, harshly dismissed after 15 minutes.

Despite this, Maksim Kanunnikov swiftly put the 10 men ahead from the penalty spot. Yet, disaster struck again for the visitors after 53 minutes, being reduced to nine men after Dmitry Nikitinskiy collected a second booking.

Rostov buoyant

That was the straw that would have broken any camel’s back. Roman Adamov quickly levelled with a penalty. Michal Papadopoulos added a second, and Adamov bagged a brace with two minutes left. Rostov buoyant. Tom last tasted victory on July 23rd.

And so, to the final weekend, which would decide the two halves of the table for the next three months, in points as well as psychology. Saturday 26th dawned and, in the day’s only Championship Group game, Rubin became the only team in either group to win two games from the last two.

In spite of Salvatore Bocchetti seeing straight red with 13 minutes to go, Kurban Berdyev’s men netted two first-half goals to win 2-0 at home to in-form Dynamo to rise to fifth, and occupy the last of the Europa League places. What a difference six points can make.

But not for Spartak. Karpin’s side missed the chance to literally capitalise and leapfrog Dynamo into third, after being held 1-1 at Kuban. Yevgeny Makeev’s 86th-minute equaliser cancelled out Lacina Traore’s first-half effort.

Meanwhile at the bottom, the marvellously monikered Magomed Mitrishev netted a second-half brace, as Spartak Nalchik moved to within a point of safety, after a surprise 3-0 win at home to Terek. Following that result, Chechen President, Ramzan Kadyrov, stepped down from his role of president at the Grozny club, a post which he had held since 2004, citing his heavy workload.

More misery

Finally, Sergei Kornilenko fired in after 11 minutes, as Krylya Sovetov heaped more misery on Volga, hanging on to win 1-0 and nudge the visitors to the brink of the drop zone.

And so to Sunday, before they rested. Tom fans finally had something to cheer, as they claimed their first point since August the 27th by pulling off a surprise goalless draw at home to Group leaders Krasnodar. While Rostov also drew, 1-1, on their own ground against Amkar.

Then, in the Championship band, Samuel Eto’o had the last word at Anzhi, drilling in the 89th-minute penalty to inflict a 2-1 defeat on CSKA. Shamil Lakhyalov had given the men from Makhachkala the lead, straight after the interval, which was immediately cancelled out by Wagner Love.

But, with three minutes left, Sergei Chepchugov was sent off for upending Zhirkov, and Eto’o grabbed the winner – his ninth goal in 11 appearances. Not bad for an estimated 425,000 Euros per week.

But the day belonged to Zenit, who went six points clear at the top, following a 2-1 win over Lokomotiv at the Petrovsky Stadium. All the goals came within 13 first-half minutes. Danny and Sergei Semak put the home side up, before Denis Glushakov snatched one back. But 2-1 it finished – advantage Luciano Spalletti’s defending champions; Loko two points adrift of a Europa League berth – though a long way still to go.

The quest for European glory

Phew. Yet even though the domestic programme might have reached a lull, allowing the tired to rest and the injured to recover, there are still the European fixtures – and the quest for European glory, boosted by bolstering squads in the transfer window.

Elite players such as Chelsea’s 33-year-old striker Didier Drogba, who is out of contract at the end of the season, could sign pre-contract deals from January 1st. And Anzhi have repeatedly expressed an interest in the Ivorian star. Though it might be at least a year before we could ever see David Beckham in Russia, as he would rather stay at LA Galaxy or go to PSG.

But who knows? With Kerimov at the helm, a 13% tax rate in Russia and an economic crisis in Europe, it might yet prove to be the most fascinating winter break the Russian Premier League has ever known.

Kate Partridge is a sports presenter for RT television channel, based in Moscow. You can follow her online at www.rt.com or on Twitter at KatePartridgeRT. Alternatively follow Kate's blog at http://rt.com/sport/blogs/


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