A nightmare fall for stricken Anzhi

Posted by Eliot Rothwell

Epsilon/Getty ImagesHopes were bright for Anzhi and Samuel Eto'o back in the summer, but things quickly turned bleak for the squad, which lost most of its key players as the team slashed its wage bill.

Samuel Eto'o, draped in yellow, steps up confidently for the penalty. It’s the closing moments of 2013-14 season’s opening match, with Anzhi Makhachkala, the rising force in Russian football, level 2-2 with Lokomotiv Moscow. It’s a questionable decision from the referee, with the match into the 92nd minute. And it’s a chance for Anzhi, many pundits’ favourites for the title, to begin the season with a win.

Eto’o, perhaps the highest-paid player in world football, fails to convert, and the season begins to collapse before it had a chance to begin.

Move forward to December 2013, and Anzhi are again gifted a fortunate penalty in added time. The score is set at 0-0 against Kuban Krasnodar, in the final match before the winter break. This time, however, Eto’o has gone, Willian has gone, Igor Denisov has gone, Chris Samba has gone and, most important, the money has gone.

Eto’o’s replacement as penalty taker is Ilya Maksimov, whose career highlights include spells at Krylia Sovetov and Volga. Maksimov, like Eto’o, misses the penalty and the chance to win, ending the first stage of the season as abysmally as it began.

Those two missed penalties, just two of the standout moments in the tragi-comedy of Anzhi Makhachkala, form the beginning and the end of a disastrous run of 19 league games without a win. In those games, in which they’ve played every team in the Russian Premier League, Anzhi have 11 defeats, picking up a miserly eight points, and have scored only 12 goals.

Evgeny Lovchev, the former Spartak Moscow player and now a regular Russian football quote machine, suggests he can’t remember such a disastrous run "in his lifetime." Yet for many Russian football observers, the real shock isn’t the current barren spell. That came starting Aug. 7, with a string of muddled press releases from Dagestan.

"Reformatting" was the term used on Twitter by Anzhi chairman Konstantin Remchukov as he announced a scaling back in spending, reducing the club's budget from 116 million pounds to between 32-45 million pounds. The announcement of "modifications in the personnel policy" and the replacement of Rene Meulensteen with Gadzhi Gadzhiev, however, was laced in political intrigue and non-footballing events.

A week before the announcement, Anzhi's financer, Suleyman Kerimov, lost a reported 325 million pounds of his four billion pound fortune as his potash company, Uralkali, ended links with Belaruskali, the other half of the Belarusian Potash Company, one of the two cartels that had effectively fixed potash prices. Yet club officials, keen to wrestle back a modicum of positive PR, sought to distance the fortunes of Uralkali with the decision to halt the Anzhi project.

Now, as the snow and ice descend on Russia's winter break, the playing staff at Anzhi, and the media coverage of their games has changed dramatically. Eto’o, Willian, Samba, Yuri Zhirkov, Lassana Diarra, Mbar Boussoufa and Alexsandr Kokorin have all departed, replaced by cheaper and less effective players.

Last season saw the club's highest finish of third, with many predicting their rise to the peak of Russian football this season. Today, with an inadequate playing staff and a miserably secure place at the foot of the table, the peak looks as far away as ever.

"For Anzhi the season is over. The team is doomed," suggests Sovetskiy Sport's Valeriy Reingold. "To keep their place in the Premier League, Anzhi need to win all their remaining matches. But their [possible] maximum is five victories. And that it is not enough." Yet for all the very real talk of doom and gloom, manager Gadzhiev -- the coach in place when Kerimov initially took over the club -- still has a number of reasonable players to call upon.

Jucilei, a 25-year-old Brazilian and team captain, possesses all the qualities necessary for the modern defensive midfielder, yet his talent makes him another player almost certain to leave Dagestan. Behind Jucilei, at the heart of the defence, Ewerton is a competent centre-back, capable of playing the first ball out of the defence effectively.

Where Anzhi desperately lack quality, though, is in the forward areas, illustrated with their lack of goals. They haven’t scored since Oct. 6, in a 5-1 defeat to Rubin Kazan. For all their wilful running, Andrei Solomatin, Serder Serderov and Nikita Burmistrov simply lack the quality of Eto’o and Willian, with the departure of finances mirroring the departure of goal-scoring quality.

Without another league game until March 8, Anzhi now have a chance to do some actual positive "reformatting." The worry, though, and the constant reminder that their position in Russian football has changed, is evidenced by the players they are seeking to bring in. The summer transfer window saw the pursuit of Kokorin, Russia’s excitingly talented young forward, to complement the likes of Eto’o and Willian.

This winter transfer window opens with speculation that Anzhi will bring in Alexei Sapagov, a striker who was released by Volga, to improve their goal tally. The contrasts are stark.

The story of Anzhi, almost certain to be relegated just a year after narrowly missing out on second place and the Champions League, offers warning to Europe’s nouveau riche. Pumping a club full of money may not always guarantee success, yet suddenly draining a club of money almost always guarantees disaster.


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