Russian football’s first ever full autumn-spring season is over. After a gap of seven years, during which Zenit St. Petersburg won the league three times and Rubin Kazan claimed top spot twice, the title is heading back to Moscow.
At the end of an entertaining and dramatic season, CSKA Moscow, led by their Russian manager Leonid Slutsky, deservedly topped the table. And yet, at the start of the season, CSKA did not seem to be in better shape than their rivals, who had spent big in the transfer market and set themselves very ambitious targets. FIFA.com looks back at a Russian Football Premier League season which pretty much had it all.
Slutsky’s universal soldiers
Slutsky, who took over from Spaniard Juande Ramos as CSKA’s manager in the autumn of 2009, entered his third full season in the job with mixed feelings. On the one hand, for the first time in a number of years, the club had brought new players in and strengthened the team significantly. In defence, the young and technically gifted Brazilian Mario Fernandes came in from Gremio, while two Swedes, Rasmus Elm and Pontus Wernbloom, formed a strong partnership in midfield.
On the other hand, entering his eighth season as a coach in the Premier League, Slutsky, who a few years earlier showed so much potential he was dubbed the 'Russian Mourinho', was still yet to win his first major trophy. Now aged 41, he was under serious pressure to deliver.
In late August, Slutsky’s career at CSKA might have ended completely, after Sweden’s AIK sensationally knocked the club out of the UEFA Europa League in the play-off round. At the time, the club were in sixth place in the Russian league, and injury had ruled top marksman Seydou Doumbia, scorer of 28 goals the previous season, out of action until the spring.
CSKA had no out-and-out centre-forwards available, and so Slutsky decided to use the young, mobile Nigerian Ahmed Musa, who had been bought as a winger, down the middle. Despite a wave of criticism in the media and from the club’s supporters, Slutsky’s move paid off handsomely - by the winter break, Musa had scored nine goals and provided five assists.
Despite injuries to a number of other leading players, CSKA skilfully adjusted from one match to the next, clawed points from every game and reached the winter break at the top of the table. They were also helped by their early departure from Europe, which meant they could put all their energies into domestic competition.
Through the spring, the Moscow club were able to build on their advantage, and ended up claiming the title with a game to spare. Slutsky, meanwhile, became the youngest manager ever to win the Russian Premier league.
From Brazil with love
One of the players who made a crucial contribution to CSKA’s successful title bid was the Brazilian Wagner Love, considered by many as the club’s finest striker since the fall of the Soviet Union. In the winter of 2011/12, it seemed as if Love had left Russia for good, after he returned home to Brazil to continue his career with Flamengo.
But exactly one year on, he returned in the nick of time to help the club to build up a lead over the pack in the championship’s decisive stages. In nine games, Love scored five times and provided six assists, two of those assists coming in the derby against Spartak.
The adventures of the Incredible Hulk
The defending champions, Zenit St. Petersburg, started the season as favourites to retain their title. Indeed, the club were expecting not only to win their fourth championship in six years, but to make serious inroads into the UEFA Champions League.
At the very end of the summer transfer window, manager Luciano Spalletti was handed two incredible reinforcements from Portugal, with the arrival of Brazil international Hulk and Belgian star Axel Witsel, bought for a total of 100 million euros.
But the club were unable to make the most of their expensive purchases straightaway. On the contrary, for a long time Spalletti simply could not find the right position for Hulk in Zenit’s formation. The Brazilian tried to show the fans and the management what he could do, but early on his eye-catching individual efforts regularly disrupted the team’s play.
Zenit failed to win the first five league and UEFA Champions League games in which Hulk played, with the club losing ground in the Premier League and coming only third in their Champions League group. Moreover, there was conflict, with one of Zenit’s leading players, Igor Denisov, refusing to play against Krylya Sovetov in protest at the club’s transfer policy.
Over time, order was restored, and Hulk became one of the club’s leading players - hitting the back of the net five times during the spring after scoring just twice in the first half of the season. In the last few games of the championship, Zenit even managed to cut CSKA’s lead to just three points, but it was too little, too late given the points dropped in the autumn. Next season, they will harbour fresh hopes of success in Russia and in Europe.
A new European force
Another club tipped to make a bid for the Premier League title was Anzhi Makhachkala, who in the space of just two seasons had managed to recruit Roberto Carlos, Samuel Eto’o, coach Guus Hiddink and a number of other big names respected and feared across Europe and around the world.
Anzhi were in brilliant form during the first half of the season, playing attractive, attacking football, and reached the winter break trailing CSKA by just two points. In addition, Hiddink’s players were also performing well in the UEFA Europa League, qualifying for the knockout stages and being seen as potential winners.
However, there was a shock in store for everyone as Anzhi, who seemed to be able to afford any footballer in the world, lost a player they could not replace. In January, central defender Christopher Samba unexpectedly left for the English Premier League in a bid to save beleaguered Queens Park Rangers, and Anzhi started shipping goals. Moreover, Hiddink was unable to find a balance between home and abroad, and in the end Anzhi dropped out of the title race and were then knocked out of the UEFA Europa League.
Even so, third spot in 2012/13 marked the finest achievement in the club’s history. But it is clear that Anzhi have no intention of stopping there and they may even be about to win their first major trophy, when they face off against CSKA in the final of the Russian Cup on 1 June.
Football boom in Krasnodar
The Russian top flight is becoming ever more interesting by the year. Much of the credit for this has to go to the division’s strengthening “middle class”. Weak clubs and games with foregone conclusions are now few and far between and, right up to the last round of matches, teams as low as ninth and tenth were still competing to qualify for Europe.
Over the last couple of seasons, two clubs from Krasnodar - Kuban and FC Krasnodar - have come to symbolise these changes. Even the departures of key players to top Russian clubs have failed to halt the progress made by the southerners.
For example, before the start of the season, Kuban were unable to stop top goalscorer Lacina Traore from moving to Anzhi, while, once the season had started, manager Dan Petrescu left for Moscow to try and save Dinamo from relegation. Despite these losses, Kuban enjoyed a fine season, and even went undefeated in the 11 matches they played in the spring. As a result, after finishing in fifth place, the club qualified for Europe for the first time in their history.
During the winter, FC Krasnodar lost their leading striker, with Spartak Moscow buying Armenian international Yura Movsisyan. But manager Slavolyub Muslin successfully made the required changes, pushing Wanderson up front and helping the pint-sized Brazilian to carry on where Movsisyan left off.
As a result, Movsisyan and Wanderson ended the season sharing the mantle of the league’s top scorer, with 13 goals each. And next year, FC Krasnodar are hoping to emulate their neighbours’ success and force their way into Europe.