sports blog by andy shenk

Quarterfinals Tempt Russian Trio

In Anzhi, Russian Football on March 7, 2013 at 9:34 AM

My latest for The False Nine, in which I preview today’s Europa League action, featuring three Russian clubs: Zenit, Anzhi and Rubin. To read the entire piece click here or at the bottom of this excerpt.

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 fall in the Champions League group stage, the country has bounced back nicely in the Europa League.

It’s hard to say, however, what impact the fall-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.

Continue reading at The False Nine.

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