sports blog by andy shenk

Stakes High for Russia in Europa League

In Russian Football on February 14, 2013 at 8:09 AM

My latest for The False Nine, previewing Russia’s Europa League trio of Zenit, Anzhi and Rubin ahead of tonight’s clashes.

Three Russian clubs remain from the six that entered European competition this season. Moscow clubs Dynamo, CSKA and Spartak are out, while Zenit, Rubin and Anzhi advance to the Europa League round of 32, which kicks off today across Europe.

In a nation eager to regain a top-six UEFA ranking, and the extra Champions League place that comes with it, the autumn European campaign was almost a complete disaster. Champions League failure and disappointing exits from CSKA and Dynamo in August left Anzhi and Rubin the only bright spots.

CSKA, currently atop the Premier League, lost 3-2 on aggregate to AIK in late summer, despite opening the tie with a 2-1 win in Stockholm. Dynamo, winless in their first five Premier League matches, went down 2-0 on aggregate to Stuttgart in the same qualifying round, joining CSKA one step from the group stage.

Just like the Army club, Dynamo excelled domestically after departing the Europa League, closing 2012 with a 10-0-4 record, including wins over Spartak, CSKA and Rubin. Only Anzhi and CSKA bettered that run, which stretched from late August to the beginning of the winter break in early December. Many attribute Dynamo and CSKA’s autumn success to their freedom to concentrate on domestic play, arguing the teams would not have performed so well if they were tested by midweek European matches. In hindsight, nonetheless, league-leading CSKA’s failure to advance even to the group stage looks bad for Russian football as a whole.

Zenit, slotted with AC Milan, Malaga and Anderlecht in the Champions League, were expected to coast through to the Round of 16 following their late-summer Hulk and Witsel acquisitions. Instead, they barely scraped into third, needing victory at the San Siro in December against a disinterested AC Milan to keep Anderlecht out of a Europa League spot.

Spartak, meanwhile, endured a bizarre campaign. Russian newspapers praised the Red-Whites’ Champions League opener in Barcelona, in which they led 2-1 in the second half before falling 3-2, victim to a late Messi brace. “Unafraid,” praised Sport-Express, while Sovetsky Sport played up the Russian for Red-Whites, switching “Krasno-Belye” to “Krasno-Smelye” – the “Red-Braves.” Two months later Barcelona put three past Spartak goalkeeper Andrei Dykan in the first half to condemn Spartak to fourth in their group and send manager Unai Emery packing.

The glimmer of hope, indeed, came from beyond Moscow and St. Petersburg. Anzhi Makhachkala and Rubin Kazan both reserved places in the Europa League round of 32 ahead of schedule and collected more UEFA points between them than the other four clubs combined. Now Zenit joins them in three intriguing ties that offer Russia a chance for redemption after the disappointment of 2012.

Continue reading at The False Nine.

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