Andy Shenk previews the Russian trio vying for progression to the quarterfinal stage of the Europa League…
Russian football’s winter break is finally over. Tonight, three clubs, Zenit, Anzhi and Rubin, continue their Europa League campaign in the round of 16. Tomorrow, the first two Russian league games in 2013 coincide with International Women’s Day: Volga Nizhny Novgorod – Kuban and Krasnodar – Amkar.
Last season, four clubs made it to the knockout phase of European football, but all four, Zenit, Rubin, CSKA and Lokomotiv, failed to advance past the first round and turned their attention to the home stretch of the 15-month 2011/2012 Russian Premier League season, which ran from March 2011 to May 2012 in order to implement the league’s fall-spring switch.
The scheduling change had one primary motive: improved performances from Russian clubs in European competition. Though Spartak and Zenit struggled last autumn in the Champions League group stage, the nation has bounced back nicely in the Europa League.
It’s hard to say, however, what impact the autumn-spring calendar has made. Under the old system, the Russian league wrapped up the third weekend in November. Now, in light of shoddy stadiums and brutal northern winters, only three more matchdays have been tacked on at the end of autumn, with play resuming in early March, the same time the Russian league used to kick off.
Still, psychologically, a break, rather than end to the season, may be helpful to clubs still competing in Europe over the winter. Zenit, Anzhi and Rubin have plenty of work still to do in the league. That focus, as opposed to the more laid-back preparations for the beginning of a season, may have been beneficial last month as they dispatched Atletico Madrid, Liverpool and Hannover 96, respectively, in the round of 32.
Zenit – Liverpool had top billing in February among the ties involving Russian clubs. This time around, there aren’t any standout match-ups. Anzhi begin in Moscow, their home away from home, against Newcastle United; Zenit travel to Basel to take on the Swiss champs; while Rubin are off to Spain, squaring off with upstart Levante, who’ve never advanced this far in Europe before.
Sports are fickle, and Russian fans may be as disappointed by failure in the round of 16 as they were shocked by Zenit, Anzhi and Rubin’s joint progression in February. Though the Europa League draws far less interest than the Champions League, a competition in which CSKA’s 2010 quarterfinals appearance ranks as the crowning achievement of Russian football since the break-up of the Soviet Union, hopes are high that the country can send at least two teams on and make a serious challenge for the Europa League title.
Indeed, progression to the quarterfinals for one or more clubs would give Russia a good chance of catching Ukraine in the UEFA country rankings, vital if they are to regain a top-six place and third Champions League spot anytime soon. All the Ukrainian clubs, it should be noted, have already been eliminated this season. Barring an all-Russian final, they’re unlikely to be passed this season, but next year could see it done, though even more work remains to hunt down the high-flying Portuguese, who currently occupy sixth.
Who has the best odds? On paper, Rubin, who bounced cup holders Atletico Madrid in the round of 32, face a manageable opponent in Levante, 11th in La Liga and winless in their last five domestic matches, including a recent 2-0 home defeat to relegation-threatened Osasuna.
Levante midfielder Vicente Iborra was open about the significance of advancing this far in Europe: “We don’t know when we’ll get to play in the Europa League again. Hopefully, soon, but we must take advantage of our chances now.” They have thus far. Despite La Liga mediocrity, the Spanish side cruised past Olympiacos 4-0 on aggregate in the last round.
The tie will also feature Levante forward Obafemi Martins’s return to Kazan. In September, the Nigerian international left Rubin for Spain, where he’s enjoyed far more playing time. Nonetheless, Martins is under fire from Levante fans for telling the press last week that he was unhappy at the club and would like to accept Seattle Sounders’ offer to jump to MLS.
Another of Martins’s former clubs, Newcastle United, are in Moscow for the first leg of their Anzhi test. The Dagestani side is fit, missing only midfielder Mbarak Boussoufa in the first leg because of yellow cards. Their visitors, who knocked out Ukraine’s Metalist Kharkiv to advance this far, have significantly more roster trouble. Forward Papiss Cisse is ill and didn’t travel with the team to Moscow, while other attacking options Shola Ameobi and Hatem Ben Arfa are questionable.
That’s a relief to Anzhi, who are still scrambling to cover for centreback Chris Samba, who jumped to QPR in January. The Dagestani defence often looked unsteady against Hannover 96, conceding twice. An away goal or tight result in Moscow would make the trip to St. James’s Park much more difficult than Anzhi would like.
Speaking to the media on Wednesday, Anzhi manager Guus Hiddink expressed his relief that the season was finally here: “It’s good that the league resumes on the weekend. Prior to this, we’ve trained a lot at camp and it’s much more familiar to be in a playing rhythm.” Newcastle’s Alan Pardew named his opponent the favorites in the tie, but Anzhi nearly slipped up against a weaker Hannover club and will need to improve to progress this time.
Zenit round out the action. Success against Liverpool helped restore some of the lustre to what had been a terribly disappointing 2012/2013 European campaign. Missing leftback Domineco Criscito, who suffered a season-ending injury in camp last week, Zenit face Basel, who eliminated Ukrainian Dnipro Dnipropetrovsk. The Swiss club will be without captain Marco Streller and Fabian Frei as they try to keep Zenit from poaching an away goal.
Servette were the last to do so, way back on October 7th, but Zenit will be difficult to contain. Brazilian international Hulk unleashed a pair of terrific goals against Liverpool and he’s backed by half of the Russian national team’s starting XI – Malafeev, Anyukov, Denisov, Shirokov and Kerzhakov, along with several top foreign internationals.
Zenit manager Luciano Spalletti, who celebrates his 54th birthday today, is fully aware of the pressure on his side to advance: “We have big ambitions in Europe and the club has made certain investments in the team. For Gazprom, this is another opportunity to advertise their name and we’re working on the results.”
Russia is well-positioned to make some noise in the Europa League, but its representatives need to prove they’re capable of consistency after a thrilling start to the knockout rounds. That can be maddeningly difficult to achieve, especially when expectations begin to rise.