The Russian Premier League is one of the earliest championships to commence in Europe, and already into week three there have been plenty of scandals.
Dynamo Moscow have been expelled from Europe as a result of UEFA’s financial fair-play protocols, former Spartak striker Artyom Dzyuba has shone for Zenit Saint Petersburg, and Russian sports minister Vitaly Mutko has installed a hugely controversial new rule on foreigners.
That new rule has become the main talking point for Russian football at the moment, with plenty of non-Russian players facing the exit door as a direct result of this new regulation.
Russian football going through a bind
The well documented problems of the Russian national team have been going on for some while now, and after that disastrous 2014 FIFA World Cup campaign in Brazil Italian Fabio Capello was finally relieved of his duties a few weeks ago. No one in Russia quite knows what to do amongst all the chaos, and a rather strange 6+5 limit has been imposed on the country’s top football championship.
If you don’t understand quite what that means, only six foreign players can now be on the field at one time along with five Russians (the idea being that Russian players will get more game time). Just about every club has voiced their strong opinions against the new ruling, however no more so than Zenit with Andre Villas Boas.
The Portuguese has furiously called for something to be done calling it the end of Russian football and, if you look at his squad, you can see where he is coming from.
Zenit’s difficulties and the lowdown on Witsel
Zenit, by far and away Russia’s only real top club, are themselves already coming into difficulties with nearly all their recent success based on foreign exports. One of last season’s top scorers Jose Salomon Rondon finds himself turning into a benchwarmer with Russian Artyom Dzyuba in his place, and it could become a real problem when the Champions League comes around with match practice at a premium.
One man who could ease up the foreign contingent however is Belgian midfielder Axel Witsel, who is looking to make that next step up.
Having joined Zenit almost three years ago, Axel has fully announced himself on the European stage. It was rather a shock to the whole continent when the Russians took him on board from Portuguese giants Benfica, and although he isn’t quite a fan favourite in Saint Petersburg, he has gone on to take the Russian Premier League title as well as the Russian Super Cup.
He has based his trade on being a midfield engine, breaking up the opposition’s play while breaking forward at any given opportunity. Those qualities have especially helped the Belgian national team, as he starred in Belgium’s run to the World Cup quarter finals last year.
Despite his midfield presence and sheer reliability (he rarely drops below 95% passing accuracy a game), Zenit’s supporters have criticised him a fair amount. His calm way of going about things have prompted many to say that he slows Zenit’s attacks down too much, and that he never shows urgency.
Is there any truth in that? To be honest, yes. He doesn’t appear to enjoy playing at an overly fast pace, and he strays away from making the odd risky pass.
With the new added limit now in place, and plenty of top European clubs queuing at the door to take him on board, this could be the time to leave Russia’s northern capital.
Is he ready for a top club though? Does he have what it takes?
At 26 years of age he is just going through his prime and, despite his cautious passing style, any midfield will love having him marshal their stormy seas. AC Milan were rumoured to be on the brink of taking Axel to Italy, but while that move fell through English champions Chelsea are still interested.
English experts and specialists have long been singing his praises, while he is still the right side of 30 this really does seem to be the perfect opportunity.
Zenit ain’t giving in that easily
Zenit won’t be too keen on letting him go though, and Andre Villas Boas is unlikely to let one of his headline making players leave easily. Yes, the Russians have Javi Garcia, Viktor Fayzulin, Alexander Ryazantsev and Artur Yusupov as ideal replacements, but none of them are likely to tally up such high pass percentages.
The Russian government may have made Zenit’s task of becoming a true European superpower just that bit harder, but the Saint Petersburgers aren’t going to give up without a fight.
Written by Shaun Nicolaides
Follow Shaun on Twitter @zenitfan93
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