Russian winter hots up

Unpaid players and staff is nothing new in Russia (fingers crossed FC Tambov get paid soon). Contracts are signed in summer with the usual finger in the air (or a part of the anatomy) economic forecast used.

Every single professional club is majority funded from a single source, all but three to four clubs suck on the teat of government funding, through state companies or local/regional governments. From Zenit’s Gazprom funding, to Krasnodar’s millionaire backer, down to Volga Ulyanovsk’s reliance on local government and Veles Moscow’s dependence on a Football Manager loving investment manager, there is not a single liquid club in Russia.

But the winter might not be so cold. We have clubs going through transformation, players on the move and managerial changes in the offing.

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Loko gone Loco

Two years ago Lokomotiv Moscow removed two of the men who had transformed the club from near miss specialists to overachievers and Champions League regulars. Removing General Director Ilya Gerkus and Sports Director Erik Stoffelshaus in December 2018 stalled the fall from favour of club legend Yuri Semin. The only man to have led the Russian Railways club to League titles, his friendships with “businessmen” unable to move freely and agents were always going to bite him. He was delighted when the two men who’d placed the focus on youth, commercial, supporter, facilities and club development ahead of lining their pockets. With his two foes gone, he figured he’d either have a “friend” take over the top spot and allow him run riot. It didn’t quite work out like that for Yuri Pavlovich.

Media man Vasili Kiknadze arrived and out went many of the top class professionals in commercial, media and events. Some quality was retained, especially in media, but despite best efforts there was conflict between the top man and fans, coach and media. Semin was jettisoned in rather abrupt manner in favour of a relatively unknown Serbian coach Marko Nikolic. Nikolic was hamstrung with having to rebuild an aging lineup and in record time. Add in losing star man Alexei Miranchuk to Atalanta and a Champions League group of Atletico Madrid, Red Bull Salzburg and Bayern Munich, the outlook was bleak. Yet, the team revelled in taking on three genuinely superior clubs and I stand by my assertion that this was Loko’s best Champions League showing in the three I’ve covered with them. They might have finished with three points and not won a game, but they drew home and away against Atletico, should have drawn with Bayern and sowed a peculiar habit of “playing up” to opponents.

And Santa delivered another gift(s) this year. Out went Mr. Kiknadze and out flowed information on the club’s rather odd transfer dealings. For those of you whose Russian’s not great, Google translate it, because this is a read EVERY club should be made produce. This is as bad as Slaven Bilic’s dodgy dealings at West Ham. Back to Loko, so who is replacing Vasili? None other than a former (or current) member of an organisation that did everything they could to avoid scrutiny when being shown up to having ethics values akin to Grigori Rodchenkov, Vladimir Leonchenko. He headed the Union of Footballers and Trainers – PFST- (and agents), which was formed with forged signatures of leading Russian footballers and Leonchenko’s partner went on the run for crimes including child trafficking. Having seen his gravy train go off the rails with the PFST, he’s gotten back on track at the money train at Loko. 2021 promises to be fun out in east Moscow.

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January sales

According to the excellent Ivan Zhidkov a couple of weeks ago on Capital Sports, FC Zenit look very much like they’ll be hitting update in 2021. While Artem Dzyuba continues to lead the line and Sardar Azmoun bag goals, the forward line needs freshening up. Dzyuba is most likely to leave, sadly not abroad, though Azmoun could fetch a good price for any number of clubs who need a goalscorer who can link with midfield. Azmoun could easily slot into a mid-table English, German, Spanish or Italian top flight club and bag 10 to 12 goals a season and make the same number. Having seen him develop from a callow youth on the Volga with Rubin, he would cost only 10 to 15 million euros, plus add ons.

Artem unfortunately will stay in Russia and could end up at Lokomotiv to replace the spent flat track bully Smolov. Smolov is most likely going to be moved off the books at a bargain basement price to a club outside of Russia. Still at Zenit, Yuri Zhirkov has left hints that this could be his last season and the disappointing Sebastian Driussi has already been shopped around to buyers for less than 5 million euros (3 million below the fee paid by Zenit to River Plate).

CSKA Moscow continue to unch above their weight and undergo changes on and off the field. Their greatest asset is the superb Nikola Vlasic, who would slot in at most top clubs in Europe. It is up front with Fedor Chalov that they need to act now. He has been awful in 2020 and commentating on CSKA’s cup match with Spartak was painful. He was scared to receive the ball, unsure what to do when he got it and absolutely clueless in his movement. Something has gone terribly wrong for the 22-year-old. If a club with 5 million to invest in a player who, with a bit of love, can turn into a 20 goal a season machine, do it! He is going to be a nothing if he remains in Russia and if Leon Angel wants his agency to live up to their motto of being dedicated to the ongoing development and management of his career, they need to move him now. CSKA will be happy for a decent sell on, because believe me, he will go for 30 to 50 million within three years if he leaves Russia this January.

A couple of younger players in the Russian Premier League have come up in foreign clubs scout reports. FC Krasnodar have Spring European football to look forward to, however they also have a chance to cash in on a youth product and not lose anything. Magomed-Shapi Suleymanov is on the radar for a number of clubs including:- OFC Nice, Udinese and two Bundesliga outfits. He’d go for close to 10 million euros but the Dagestani native would immediately catapult himself into the Russian team for the 2021 Euros and World Cup qualifiers. He’s small, tough and has proven he can score goals. Staying down south, Danil Stepanov is on loan from Rubin Kazan at new boys Rotor Volgograd. The left back has put in some strong performances and has had interest shown in him from clubs in Spain and Germany. He’s 21 at the end of January and a current u-21 International with the ability to grab a spot in the World Cup qualifiers, at least as a squad player. Should he move it will be for under 2 million euros and with a decent sell on for Rubin. The only people unhappy with the deal will be Rotor who will struggle badly without him.

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Mangers a-go-go

Ringmaster of the Spartak Moscow circus and, for some, architect of the disaster at Schalke, Domenico Tedesco, said he’s not renewing his contract in May. The club have imploded yet again despite having one of the most sparkling line ups in Russian football. If they decided to raise funds in the morning, there would be suitors out the door for gamechangers like Ponce, Larsson, Lucas and Zobnin. Sideshow Bob lookalike Alex Kral would be an asset to any club and there are youngsters like Umyarov and Maksimenko who would be bargains for any top league side. But with a Sports Director castrated and forced out, confused owners and a power hungry female behind the throne, all we can expect from the self-titled People’s Club are more fun and games. Who will replace the Italian is a mystery. Spartak fans hope he’ll change his mind, despite the insults he gave and received from others in the Russian football fraternity, though he’d have to find his mind first, then lose it again before signing a new contract.

The impressive Vladimir Fedotov, FC Sochi, has put himself into the reckoning for a move to a big club. The rumour is that CSKA might well jettison coach Viktor Goncharenko and bring in the Uralnik to give the club a bit of bite. Goncharenko is a fine coach, though his contract is up in the Summer and he’s stalled badly from bright beginnings. Tedesco has also lifted his skirt to show an ankle at CSKA’s bosses, though it’s a snowball’s chance in hell of him staying in west Moscow. Klopp acolyte Sandro Schwarz made a good start at Dynamo Moscow and has faltered a little, though under the guidance of Zeljko Buvac he will probably get the police club into Europe again. Outside of Moscow there will be moves. Valeri Karpin’s rehabilitation at FC Rostov continues to get respect. One of football’s good guys, he was dumped on by Spartak, fell into hell in Mallorca and was desperate in Armavir. He deserves more than Rostov, though the next step will be back to Spain or, wait for it.

Also rehabbing in the regions is Leonid Slutsky. Five years ago he was in the running for the Chelsea job, via the Russian National Team job, an ill-advised move to Hull City and a decent showing with Vitesse Arnhem, he’s not at Rubin Kazan. He is fighting fires in Tatarstan and spinning his tyres. The chance of coaching Spartak was there before and he knocked it back, he might not refuse at a second time of asking. However, there is a major vacancy about to crop up. Stanislav Cherchesov looks to have very, very little time left in the Russian job and there are two locals who are regarded as front runners, Leonid and Valeri. Should Leonid go back for a 2nd chance or look outside of Russia again? Will Valeri still see the Russia job as a career peak or is it better to struggle to get paid in Rostov? No matter what, this Winter will heat up as soon as the New Year holiday ends on January 11th!

The Author

Alan Moore

Russian based sports journalist, commentator and consultant, working with major clubs including Hajduk Split, Eintracht Frankfurt, Lokomotiv and Spartak Moscow. Current host of Capital Sports 3.0, former international boxer and semi-professional footballer and commentated at the FIFA World Cup 2018 and 2019 Rugby World Cup.

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