sports blog by andy shenk

No Longer Outsiders, Anzhi Face Test at Home

In Anzhi, Russian Football on October 20, 2012 at 1:52 AM

Just 18 months ago, Spartak Moscow made the 1000 km journey south to Dagestan’s capital, Makhachkala, to take on Russian upstarts Anzhi Makhachkala in the 5th round of the Premier League’s wacky, never-ending 2011-2012 season (March 2011-May 2012).

I watched the end of the game on my computer in Madison, Wisconsin. Several months earlier I had severed ties with Moscow’s Red and White, appalled by the rioting and violent racism of Spartak fans on Manezhnaya Ploshchad in the Russian capital in December. I adopted the green and yellow colors of Anzhi Makhachkala in Spartak’s place, returning fully in a sporting sense to my roots in Dagestan.

My embrace of Anzhi coincided neatly with Suleiman Kerimov’s purchase of the team in January 2011. As one of Russia’s wealthiest individuals, Anzhi’s new owner unveiled a dramatic vision for improving the team, its infrastructure and football across Dagestan. The first big moves by the team involved the signing of numerous foreign football stars, including Brazilian legend Roberto Carlos. With a cast of newly-arrived foreigners, long-time Anzhi footballers, and Dagestani coach Gadzhi Gadzhiyev, Anzhi welcomed Spartak to Dinamo Stadium two Aprils ago.

In seven previous meetings, Spartak had never lost to the Dagestani club, but on this spring evening, Anzhi danced away with a 2-1 victory. Five weeks in, Spartak lay gloomily in the bottom depths of the Premier League, its coach, Valery Karpin, under duress from the fan base for their awful league start and recent performance in the Europa League against Porto (3-10 on aggregate). Anzhi, meanwhile, looked capable of making considerable noise in its first year under Mr. Kerimov, with only one loss through five rounds.

Much changed over the next 13 months; 39 matches later both Spartak and Anzhi had reason to celebrate. Karpin survived a tumultuous 2011 campaign to lead his men to 2nd in the league and Champions League qualification, while Anzhi secured its 2nd-ever place in European competition, squeaking into the 2nd round of Europa League qualifying with a 5th-place finish in Russia. In a strange turn of events, Anzhi manager Gadzhiyev, not Karpin, got the boot in 2011, following a disappointing stretch of play in late summer and early fall. Spartak’s gaffer, juggling both general manager and coaching duties, stayed on the sidelines in Moscow until the conclusion of the season, when he vacated the managerial position to Spaniard Unai Emery.

In their other three meetings last season, Anzhi and Spartak each secured four points, though Anzhi’s lone victory in three attempts made a bit more noise than Spartak’s. Following a 3-0 drubbing in Moscow in August 2011, and a bland 0-0 tie in Makhachkala in March 2012, Anzhi entered Spartak’s Luzhniki Stadium on April 22, just 1 year and 5 days since they earned their famous first victory over one of Russia’s most celebrated clubs. On this day, Spartak brought out its legends at halftime, to celebrate the club’s 90-year anniversary. Yes, Spartak had won 21 Russian and Soviet championships over the years, but on this afternoon Anzhi ran roughshod over the Red and White, before the eyes of their beloved heroes. In four meetings with Spartak in 2011-2012 , Anzhi claimed its first home and away victory against the Muscovites.

Now, though autumn washes the capital in dull grey, the southern port city of Makhachkala awaits the central match of the 12th round of the Russian Premier League, Anzhi-Spartak, with sunny anticipation, 66° and breezy. Anzhi are top of the table for the 2nd consecutive week, while Spartak languishes in 7th. Already, the calls for Unai Emery’s head have been heard, though he cheerfully dismissed concern earlier this week, telling a reporter, “If we win in Makhachkala, and then continue to win, we’ll be serious contenders to finish first.” Whether Emery will then concede the championship a little over 1/3 of the way through the season, in the event of a loss or tie in Dagestan, remains to be seen.

There is no such concern over Guus Hiddink’s performance in the Anzhi camp. The season began on a sour note for Makhachkala fans, as UEFA banned Anzhi from hosting their much-anticipated Europa League games in Dagestan. Nonetheless, the team has performed superbly, accompanied by sell-outs for almost every home match, and meeting defeat only once all season (in Moscow to CSKA). They are first in Russia, first in their Europa League group, and through to the round of 16 in the Russian Cup.

The stakes are much higher for Spartak today and it is up to Anzhi to prove that they can match their foes’ intensity and desperation on the pitch. If the coaches on both sides prepare their players properly, this match could prove a delight.

Anzhi – Spartak, Dinamo Stadium, Makhachkala. Saturday, October 20, 13.30 (local time)

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