Many observers viewed Rubin Kazan's first-ever Russian championship triumph in 2008 as a flash in the pan. History appeared to be on the pundits' side, as no team based outside of Moscow had ever successfully defended the title.
But all series come to an end at some stage or another, in this case on the penultimate matchday of the season. The men from Kazan battled to a goalless draw away to 2007 champions Zenit St Petersburg, and with closest pursuers Spartak Moscow losing 3-2 at home to city rivals CSKA, the point was enough for Rubin to retain their crown. "This season was more difficult than the last one. We've had to prove last year's success was no accident. We went into the campaign determined to achieve just that," commented coach Kurban Berdyev.
The facts prove that the 2009 title race was indeed a great deal harder than the previous edition. The men in red enjoyed a commanding lights-to-flag success in 2008, going top on the first day and staying there through to the end, but their title defence this year was marked by an indifferent start. It began well enough with a 3-0 victory over Kuban Krasnodar, but the team from the capital of the Tatarstan republic then played out successive goalless stalemates against Spartak Nalchik and FK Moscow, slipping to fifth in the standings as a result. However, that was to be their lowest placing of the season.
Third-tier hopefuls to top-flight giants
Rubin reclaimed top spot after ten games and never surrendered it after that. Once they had run into form, Kazan again set the standards in the Russian Premier Liga, with the most goals (62) and victories (19), the lowest number of goals against (21), and the fewest defeats (5). At the end of the 30-match season, the margin between themselves and runners-up Spartak Moscow was an imposing eight points.
This season was more difficult than the last one. We've had to prove last year's success was no accident. We went into the campaign determined to achieve just that
The repeat success is even more remarkable when you consider that Rubin were a third-tier club just a decade ago. Ten years on, and they have emerged as one of the leading teams in the whole of the former Soviet bloc. They first burst onto the scene as a promoted club in 2003, finishing the season in third and qualifying for the UEFA Cup (now the Europa League).
The back-to-back champions were a formidable force away from home in 2009 too, with ten wins and just one defeat in 15 matches. The solitary reverse on the road was a 2-1 defeat to Lokomotiv Moscow. Curiously, the record at their home Central Stadium was somewhat less impressive, including nine victories but also four defeats, to runners-up Spartak, CSKA, FK Rostov and Amkar Perm.
Khimki and Kuban Krasnodar relegated
Turing to Rubin's rivals, the once all-powerful clubs from the capital have now gone three seasons without collecting the title. CSKA brought the trophy to Moscow in 2005 and 2006 and finished third and second in the following seasons, but only just scraped into Europe this year in fifth. Coach Leonid Slutsky and his men at least enjoyed the consolation prize of the Cup, Evgeni Aldonin netting the only goal of the final against champions Kazan.
The outlook appears even more bleak for city rivals Spartak, nine-time champions between 1992 and 2001, but runners-up again this year. Zenit St. Petersburg, 2008 UEFA Cup and 2008 European Super Cup winners, have yet to compensate for the loss of stars such as Andrei Arshavin, Anatoliy Tymoshchuk and Pavel Pogrebnyak, and had to be content with third place.
You can beat anyone with the right tactics. Rubin can still qualify for the last sixteen, although they travel to face mighty Inter on the final group match.
At the wrong end of the table, FK Khimki were the first club condemned to relegation. The club, based in the north-west of the greater Moscow area and founded little more than 13 years ago, tumbled through the relegation trap-door after finishing with the fewest wins (2) and goals (20), and the most defeats (24) and goals against (64). Khimki will be joined in the second division by Kuban Krasnodar after a brief single-season spell in the top flight.
Dream of a hat-trick
Second-tier football looks an almost impossibly remote threat for the men from Kazan right now, as they have wasted little time laying down their credentials on the European as well as the domestic stage. In arguably the biggest shock of the current UEFA Champions League season, the Russians beat Barcelona 2-1 at Camp Nou, and then held out for a 0-0 draw in the return. "You can beat anyone with the right tactics," reasoned striker Aleksandr Bukharov. Rubin can still qualify for the last sixteen, although they travel to face mighty Inter Milan on the final group matchday.
Whatever their European fate, when the new Premier Liga season gets underway next spring, Rubin Kazan appear predestined for a starring role in the battle for the Russian crown. The men in red will give everything they have in the effort to become only the second team in Russian footballing history to rack up a hat-trick of league titles.