Should Lokomotiv Moscow make good on the lead they have taken into the long Russian winter break then they will be the fourth different Premier League winner in that country in the last four seasons.
Russian football might not be of the highest quality, but it’s certainly up there when it comes to intrigue.
Ten games from unlikely glory, it’s been quite a turnaround for a club that finished eighth last season, their second worst Russian Premier League finish.
Incredibly, the Railwaymen have already eclipsed their points tally for the whole of last season.
With 45 points on the board, they sit 8 clear of Roberto Mancini’s stuttering second-placed Zenit St Petersburg and champions Spartak Moscow.
Bald facts and figures illustrate their revival. They’ve been scoring at double last season’s rate (0.76 goals per game last season to 1.6 this) and are much tighter defensively (they’ve reduced their concession rate from almost a goal a game in 2016-17 to 0.75 goals this season).
Being better in both boxes has clearly made a big difference, but how can we account for such a change in fortunes?
Toke Theilade, editor in chief of www.russianfootballnews.com, and Alan Moore of Moscow-based Capital Sports FM put the Railwaymen’s title run down to major changes at executive and managerial level at the RZD Arena over the last year.
For both, the replacement of derided club president Olga Smorodskaya in August 2016 with former Zenit director Ilya Gerkus has been the catalyst.
According to Moore:
Gerkus has revitalised the club completely, reconnecting with its core fans and community, putting them on a much better financial footing and, perhaps most importantly, putting top professionals in place in key positions.
The Moscow-based Irish journalist suggests that the appointment of one of the brains behind Schalke 04’s successful youth academy, Erik Stoffelshaus, as Sport Director has been critical.
The German has rooted out the typical corruption and unprofessionalism that kills Russian football. And he was behind the successful signings of highly rated centre half Solomon Kverkvelia, the veteran Jefferson Farfan, Polish full back Maciej Rybus and Eder, scorer of Portugal’s Euro 2016 winner – all of whom have made a big impact on the pitch for the Red-Greens.
Russian football expert Theilade agrees.
Having capable and professional personnel in key positions in the administration has allowed Lokomotiv to spend their limited resources properly instead of throwing them away on overpaid and underachieving players as they have done too often in the past.
Gerkus’s decision to bring back, and stick with, Lokomotiv managerial legend in Yuri Semin has also played a central role in the club’s stunning charge.
Semin is Lokomotiv’s Alex Ferguson. He is the man who changed them from being an irrelevant club to being one of the leaders of Russian football – leading them to title wins in 2002 and 2004.
Semin left the club in 2005 to take control of the Russian national side before a successful spell with Dynamo Kiev. He actually returned to Lokomotiv on a couple of occasions since then but without success and had drifted from club to club after that.
But on taking charge of Lokomotiv, Gerkus reinstated Semin, and his decision to stick with the 70-year-old despite the Railwaymen’s disappointing league campaign last term was rewarded when the veteran guided the club to Russian Cup glory and with it a return to European football.
Moore believes that the faithhas been justified:
Semin is a natural fit. He organises his teams well and has the respect of the fans, the board and the players. And crucially, he is his own man, a really rare commodity in Russian football.
And now Semin is well placed to bring Lokomotiv the most unlikely of league titles – and their first since 2004.
The manner of their revival has raised eyebrows. Financially, they cannot compete with the likes of Zenit and Spartak – and shouldn’t really be competing with them in on-field matters either.
But stability, professionalism and clever recruitment have allowed Lokomotiv take advantage of the inconsistency of Russia’s biggest clubs and gotten the Railwaymen back on track once more.