Before 2007, the Russian Premier League trophy had only ever made its way out of the Russian capital Moscow once, to Vladikavkaz when Alania won the title way back in 1995. But since 2007, it’s been unwilling to make a return to Moscow, having a brief stay in Saint Petersburg when Zenit claimed the title in 2007, before Rubin Kazan claimed the title in both 2008 and 2009. However, Zenit reclaimed their champions title in 2010 and kept it in the 2011/2012 season.
The dominance of Moscow clubs over Russian football is most certainly over, but this season, we could see the trophy making its way to another different part of Russia. Anzhi Makhachkala, from the highly troubled region of Dagestan, have spent big in the last year and a half with one goal in mind – to become Russian champions and therefore compete on the biggest stage of all, the UEFA Champions League. And this year their goal is becoming closer and closer.
After 13 rounds of the Russian Premier League Anzhi lay second, only 1 point behind Moscow outfit CSKA but having already led the way at the top of the table for a couple of weeks before this weekend. In addition, Anzhi have made a decent start in the Europa League, currently sitting in second place in a group which contains European giants Liverpool and talented Italian side Udinese.
Looking at the incredulous sums of money that Anzhi have been splashing out, their recent success is nothing unexpected. On the contrary, if you have players such as African superstar Samuel Eto’o in your team, then success, and instant success, is the only option.
Just a few years ago however, Anzhi were stuck in the Russian second tier, and even when they were promoted back into the Premier League for the 2010 season, there were no signs that around the corner awaited such fame and success – in fact Anzhi only just survived in the Premier League in 2010 on the last day of the season.
But then everything changed. In January 2011, Russian billionaire Suleyman Kerimov, who incidentally hails from Makhachkala himself, decided to take a 100% stake in Anzhi, and it wasn’t too long before he made his intentions clear. By March, just two months after he had taken over, no fewer than seven new players had been acquired, which included Brazilian legend Roberto Carlos, and former Anderlecht star Mbark Boussoufa.
Roberto Carlos was signed as a player but almost immediately at the same became a worldwide ambassador for the club, informing his wide range of contacts about the project at Anzhi, therefore tempting so many players to the south of Russia.
Carlos has himself retired from playing now though, to become the new director of football at Anzhi, and dedicate all of his time to searching around the world for players who are suitable to recruit. He hasn’t done a bad job, either. Every transfer window, we see more and more superstars making their way to Russia’s new footballing giants, and this is showing no signs of stopping.
But Anzhi’s most important signing was without a doubt, Samuel Eto’o. The now 31 year old surprised the whole of Europe when making a big money transfer from Italian giants Internazionale to Anzhi in August 2011, but as soon as his contract details were revealed, everyone quickly realised why he made the move – which at first glance appeared strange.
Every year the Cameroonian gets paid a tasty 20 million euros making him, reportedly, the highest paid player in the world today. But even if he did originally make the move for the money, it didn’t take him long to settle and make the impact everyone desired.
After scoring on his debut against Rostov na Donu in a 1-1 draw, he soon became the goal machine that he was at Barcelona in particular, scoring goal after goal and being the main cog in the Anzhi machine which powered its way towards European football. Eto’o now has lanky Ivorian Lacina Traore for his strike partner after Traore signed from Kuban Krasnodar this summer, and the combination has made Anzhi’s attack one of the most feared in Russia and already one of the most dangerous in Europe.
Anzhi managed to beat one time Champions League participants AZ Alkmaar in the Europa League qualifiers with a 5-0 scoreline in Holland which sent shockwaves around Europe, and in the Europa League itself, Eto’o already has a handsome 7 goals to his name.
But Anzhi’s overnight success has somewhat alienated the rest of Russia. Anzhi were already not too many people’s favourite club, due to the political animosity between the region of Dagestan and the rest of Russia, but now they are most definitely everyone’s worst enemies. Their ruthless approach in the transfer market has only angered all Russian fans, who find it hard to comprehend how such a small club became such a major club practically overnight.
That hasn’t worried Anzhi in the slightest though, who seem to be quite enjoying their role as pantomime villain in Russia. Finishing 5th last term and claiming a place in the Europa League was declared a success, and rightly so – but a similar finish come next May, and it would be pronounced as a resounding failure.
So far this season the team has only lost 3 games, 2 in the Premier League and 1 in the Europa League, and appear to be going only from strength to strength. When playing at 100%, they are practically unbeatable, as many clubs have already found out this season, especially at home.
But Anzhi’s problem has always been their away form, and it isn’t any different now. All 3 defeats have come on the road, and in the Europa League, due to the problems in Dagestan, Anzhi have to play their ‘home’ European matches in the capital Moscow – which is something that was never going to go down well and without their ferocious support in Dagestan, Anzhi tend to play at a somewhat slower pace. But still, out of 4 home games in Europe so far; 4 victories, and a goal hasn’t even been conceded so far.
It will soon become clear however, if the team will suffer from tiredness as a result of playing in European games during the week with normal league games at the weekend. So far there hasn’t been much evidence to show that Anzhi are tiring in what has been a long, gruelling year, although the recent defeats to Liverpool in the Europa League and Rubin have raised some questions.
But Anzhi’s power is becoming more and more evident on both the European and Russian stage, and the future of not just Russian but European football certainly looks to be the controversial Dagestani club. The first trophy surely can’t be too long away.
Written by Shaun Nicolaides
Follow him on Twitter @zenitfan93
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