sports blog by andy shenk

Russian Football in Like a Lion

In Anzhi, Russian Football, Spartak on March 18, 2013 at 1:19 PM

My latest for The False Nine, in which I recap weekend action in the Russian Premier League. To read the entire piece click here or at the bottom of this excerpt.

When the Russian Premier League resumed play on March 8, following the winter break, the table was split into three distinct groups. Three clubs had risen above the pack, CSKA, Anzhi and Zenit, separated by five points in the chase for the title and one of two Champions League spots. Beginning with Kuban, Terek and Spartak, all clumped six points beneath 3rd-place Zenit, another seven teams enjoyed an excellent chance at snagging one of Russia’s four Europa League places, awarded to clubs 3rd-5th in the league as well as the winner of the Russian Cup.

Five of the eight teams remaining in the Cup are located in the table’s top six (only Spartak failed to advance to the quarterfinals), meaning the odds are high that a top-five team will win the tournament and gift the country’s final Europa League bid to the 6th-place team in the league.

Kuban, Terek, and Spartak, though, faced a battle to secure European competition next season. Rubin and Lokomotiv lurked just one point back of the trio, while Krasnodar and hard-charging Dinamo trailed 4th place by just four and two points, respectively.

Bringing up the rear, six clubs, Rostov, Amkar, Volga, Krylia Sovetov, Alania and Mordovia, had virtually no hope of catching even 10th-place Krasnodar and needed to focus their attention on avoiding relegation.

15th and 16th-place in the Premier League guarantees an exit, while the two teams in 13th and 14th must play the 3rd and 4th-place teams in Russia’s second division, the Football National League, at the end of the season to determine who takes the final two spots in the Premier League.

Mordovia and Alania faced the biggest climb, seven and five points, respectively, behind 14th-place Krylia Sovetov. Only three points, however, separated 11th-placed Rostov and 13th-placed Volga, with Amkar sandwiched between the two.

Every team had work to do this spring, kicking off last weekend in fairly miserable conditions across most of the country. Rubin’s pitch in Kazan, in fact, proved so poor that the club hosted Zenit 1,800 kilometers from home, in Grozny’s Akhmat Arena. Teams playing in Saransk, Nizhny Novgorod, Moscow and Samara weren’t as lucky, battling below-freezing temperatures and stiff fields.

From a competitive standpoint, the biggest moves came at the top and the bottom. CSKA rolled past Krylia Sovetov, 2-0 in front of 22,000 in Samara, to climb five points clear of Anzhi (downed 2-0 in Saransk) and seven clear of two-time reigning champions, Zenit, who dropped three points to Rubin in their temporary Chechen home.

Mordovia handed Anzhi their worst domestic defeat this season and caught Alania in 15th place, four points back of Krylia Sovetov, a fantastic result to begin their spring survival campaign. Rostov and Alania were the only other clubs to pick up a point in the bottom six.

The hunt for the Europa League, likewise, tightened even further. Thanks to wins by Krasnodar and Dinamo, only four points separated 4th-10th.

Each team faced 10 more matches. Would the Premier League bring the excitement club owners, television executives and die-hard fans so desperately wish for? Only a few more frigid March matchdays remained on the calendar. Spring does come to Russia, albeit reluctantly, and the potential for gripping football throughout the 16-team league down the stretch was high.

Week 1 in the season’s final third did not disappoint, though some of the biggest headlines, admittedly, came from beyond the pitch.

Continue reading at The False Nine.

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