sports blog by andy shenk

The Russian Cup Returns: A Bandbox Arena, World Cup Hopes, and an Unexpected Alliance

In Russian Football on September 24, 2012 at 1:22 PM

The Russian Cup welcomes Premier League clubs to competition this week as the Round of 32 kicks off across Russia on Tuesday, September 25. Three matches are slated for the opening day of competition, ten more on the 26th, followed by three final matches on the 27th. This week’s winners will advance to the Round of 16, to be contested in late October – the last of 2012/2013 Russian Cup matches this calendar year.

The award for most overachieving team thus far goes to Lokomotiv-2, farm club of Premier League side Lokomotiv Moscow. In earning the right to host Mordovia on Wednesday, Lokomotiv-2 bested two fellow Second Division foes, then overcame Football National League club, “Petrotrest” St. Petersburg. Formed in 2008, the team has toiled in the “West” zone of Russia’s third-tier football league, the Second Division, since 2009. This season Lokomotiv-2 sits 11th in the “West” zone standings, though their home victory over “Petrotrest” on September 2 spurred them to two consecutive league wins in the following eight days, including a 2-1 win against zone leaders Pskov-247.

Wednesday, Lokomotiv-2 welcomes Premier League debutants Mordovia to their humble pitch, Lokomotiv-Perovo Stadium, capacity 1300, located on Moscow’s east side. With only several hundred fans in attendance at Lokomotiv-2’s previous Cup outing, the squad will hope that at least some of the city’s many parent-club Lokomotiv fans will take the metro across town to support their youth academy’s brightest stars. The away side, making the 400-mile trip from Saransk and unlikely to entice many of their fans to make the journey to Moscow, will most likely still feel themselves at home on the tiny grounds. A tidy win in the capital might help soothe the sting from Mordovia’s recent 6-1 shellacking in Krasnodar at the hands of their fellow cellar-dwellars.

The Lokomotiv-2 – Mordovia match-up comes in stark contrast to Thursday’s highly-anticipated contest between Ural and Anzhi. Anticipation of the Dagestani side’s arrival in Ural’s hometown of Yekaterinburg has sent the city’s inhabitants into a frenzy, as demonstrated by the 20,000 tickets sold in just 6 days. Anzhi’s star power, featuring such luminaries as Samuel Eto’o, Lassana Diarra, Yuri Zhirkov, Vladimir Gabulov, and Christopher Samba, is not the only reason for Yekaterinburg’s Cup enthusiasm, however. Oleg Shatov, Ural’s young striker sensation for many seasons, moved to Anzhi in the summer and will make his first club return to the city and region where he grew up and developed his football talent.

Thursday marks Shatov’s first club return, for, in his role on the U-21 Russian national team, he took the field in Yekaterinburg in early September against Poland and Moldova in UEFA U21 Championship qualifying matches. Yekaterinburg’s Tsentralnyi Stadium averaged nearly 20,000 fans for those matches. Now, this Thursday the young footballer, should Anzhi manager Guus Hiddink pencil him into the starting line-up, will take the pitch against his former club for the first time and play before the adoring crowds who voted him their best player following the 2010 campaign.

Ural’s opportunity to host one of the Premier League’s most-talked-about clubs comes at an ideal time for the city. Yekaterinburg is one of 13 World Cup-candidate cities looking to make the final cut on September 29 and be selected by Russia’s 2018 World Cup organizing committee as an official host of the world’s most prestigious football tournament. As Russia’s fourth-largest city and proud owners of  a newly-renovated stadium 27,000-seat stadium, Yekaterinburg hopes that a passionate, packed-out arena on Thursday night for their Russian Cup match with Anzhi will be enough to ensure that they are one of the lucky final 8 cities.

One final match in the Russian Cup to keep an eye on is Zenit St. Petersburg’s visit to Baltika in far-away Kaliningrad. The intrigue lies far from the pitch itself, but rather in the controversy surrounding Baltika’s decision to place the visiting team’s fans in the sector traditionally occupied by the home side’s ultras. That decision so upset the Baltika ultras, Konig Legion, that they announced a boycott of the club’s matches unless team officials returned them to their normal cheering section. Zenit’s fan club, Landscrona, subsequently came out in support of Konig Legion, declaring opaquely that they would let Baltika administration know how they felt about the situation during the match itself. Sufficiently chastened, Baltika officials chose to review their decision and decided to fit both the away fans and members of Baltika’s Konig Legion in the the very same seating section – the west side. Whether their compromise will satisfy the Baltika ultras remain to be seen. Either way, placing two enemy fan clubs so close together is extremely rare and will certainly lead to some agitation and drama in the stands, while the players on their field decide their Cup fate.

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