Did Denisov's arrival tip the balance in end of Anzhi project?

Posted by Michael Yokhin

"We're gonna take it outside, and I'm gonna show you what it's like," George Costanza hilariously said in "The Opposite," one of the most original "Seinfeld" episodes. Those were also the words, roughly speaking, that Igor Denisov reportedly used to address the foreign stars at Anzhi Makhachkala, including Samuel Eto'o, during a training session last week. This was real life, though, not a television show.

The events seem to have triggered an amazing chain reaction that has culminated with the news that the big Anzhi project is about to come to a very sudden and abrupt end. Owner Suleiman Kerimov has announced he is planning to sell off his most expensive stars and drastically cut the club's budget. Zenit fans, who were outraged by Denisov's transfer just a few weeks ago, will be delighted by the news. There will be no tears shed in Moscow either.

The intense dislike felt by Moscow and St. Petersburg fans towards the North Caucasian teams, especially Anzhi and Terek Grozny, is immense. It is difficult to compare it to any other rivalry in the world.

Anzhi might play in the Russian Premier League, but CSKA, Spartak and Zenit fans plainly consider them a foreign team. For them, those are clubs that get unfair support from the government, while the treatment of visiting fans in Grozny and Makhachkala by locals, including police forces, was often criticised.

Numerous incidents led to the CSKA Moscow faithful openly calling to boycott the games with Caucasian opponents. Therefore, very few of them even cared to travel to the Russian Cup Final two months ago, which was played against Anzhi, in Grozny of all places.

The boycott basically turned the final into a home fixture for Makhachkala, but the Army Men from Moscow won it nevertheless, on penalties, completing a domestic double.

Another famous incident occurred in August 2011, when Russia star Yuri Zhirkov was reduced to tears during the friendly game in Moscow against Serbia. The midfielder, once a legend at CSKA, controversially joined Anzhi from Chelsea that summer, and all the Muscovites booed him from the stands.

It is easy to understand then how Denisov's choice to join the Kerimov project went down badly in St. Petersburg. If Ryan Giggs were to sign for Liverpool, the shock would pale in comparison.

Dmitry Korotayev/Getty ImagesRussia's Igor Denisov is a complex and controversial character.

Denisov is not too famous outside Russia, but in his own country he is rightfully considered the best defensive midfielder there is. Born in St. Petersburg, a lifelong Zenit fan and player, he became the talisman of the team, while his contribution to the three championship titles and the UEFA Cup triumph in 2008 was immense. On the other side, while his energies and never-say-die attitude are extremely helpful, Igor has also been known to fly off the rails.

Given his importance, the club were willing to quietly swallow various incidents, including a brawl with assistant coach Vladislav Radimov on the training ground, or a much more violent incident in 2010 with a driver who wasn't careful enough for Denisov's liking. The person in question ended up with a broken nose, while the star midfielder hurt his leg and was forced to miss crucial Champions League qualifying games with Auxerre.

Patience finally ran out when, following the sensational transfers on Hulk and Axel Witsel in September 2012, Denisov demanded to increase his salary accordingly, and eventually refused to play until the matter was settled. The incident caused huge disruption in Zenit's dressing room, with Denisov being sent to train with the reserves for almost two months.

The midfielder eventually apologised and returned to the team, but the damage was done. The divide between Russian and foreign players was plain for all to see, and coach Luciano Spalletti looked to have lost control of the situation.

Something had to give, and the Gazprom management decided to get rid of Denisov in order to heal the wounds. The fans, many of whom remained dismayed at the behaviour of their beloved star, were supportive of the move, but Denisov's destination astonished all of them. Even signing for Spartak Moscow, the big traditional rivals, would have been less painful.

Kerimov paid €15 million for the player in late June, and at the time it appeared that the deal had turned Anzhi into clear favourites to win the league title this season. Last term, the Dagestan club frustratingly ran out of steam in the spring, eventually finishing third, but this time, with Guus Hiddink deciding to stay as coach, Denisov's arrival and further strengthening with the arrival of Aleksandr Kokorin, Russia's brightest attacking prospect, things were highly promising. At least that's how it seemed. In reality, the situation was much more complicated. Just a month later, Anzhi are in a terrible mess.

KIRILL KUDRYAVTSEV/AFP/GettyImagesSamuel Eto'o is expected to be one of the big foreign stars to leave Anzhi.

Recent rumours suggest that there was a significant tension in the squad last season and the arrival of the volatile Denisov appears to have served as a lit match held to the powder keg. An alpha male who always speaks his mind joined a pack that already had a leader. Denisov didn't wait too long before expressing the view that he thought the likes of Eto'o, Lassana Diarra and Mbark Boussoufa were paid at a disproportionate rate to their abilities.

Anzhi's results at the start of the season were poor, and after just two league games Hiddink sensationally resigned, handing the reigns to former Manchester United assistant coach Rene Meulensteen.

Denisov was substituted in Hiddink's last game, a 2-1 defeat at Dinamo Moscow, and suffered the same fate in Meulensteen's debut match -- a dreadful 1-1 draw at Samara. The lineup, with three defensive midfielders, saw the Russian partnered by Diarra and Jucilei in the centre and clearly didn't work. The man who was ever present for Zenit, when physically and emotionally fit, suddenly felt like the weakest link. That obviously wasn't his dream when joining Anzhi.

Reports then circulated in the Russian press that Denisov had taken exception to a rough tackle by Diarra in training and attacked him verbally. The Frenchman answered with obscenities of his own, and the pair nearly came to blows. Eto'o came to Diarra's rescue, with things getting out of control. The Cameroonian then apparently ordered most of the foreign players to leave the session.

The highest-paid footballer in the world, reportedly on €20 million per year, the former Barcelona and Inter star, is very close to Kerimov. When the owner heard about the incident, he took the foreigners' side against Denisov. As a result, the Russian left the camp and travelled to St. Petersburg. Without him, Anzhi shamefully lost 1-0 at home to Rostov on Friday and are stranded with just two points from the first four games.

With the point of no return seemingly reached, the Russian press eagerly discussed the possible options for Denisov's transfer. Who would gamble on a player with huge salary demands and a tainted reputation? Dinamo Moscow appear to be the likeliest destination at the moment, but on Tuesday evening those speculations were suddenly less interesting, as a real sensation emerged.

Kerimov, who reportedly felt unwell after the dire defeat to Rostov, decided to change his policies regarding the team. No more stars will be signed, and most of the current squad are expected to be sold. The budget will be reduced from €150 million to €50 million -- depending on what report you read. Meulensteen will leave, with old and wise local ex-coach Gadzhi Gadzhiev expected to return. The emphasis will be put on raising local talents. Anzhi are seemingly going forward into the past.

The Manchester City of Russia are no more. The club that openly dreamed of winning the Champions League in the near future might find themselves in a relegation battle and disappear without a trace.

Keromiv's decision and Anzhi's troubles seem to coincide with the arrival of Denisov. All the blame clearly cannot be placed on one player's shoulders, but the midfielder may well have played a part in tipping the balance in the mind of the owner. After blowing up the Zenit dressing room, he's done the same at Makhachkala.

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