Rubin stun Barça – but can lightning strike twice?
The 2010/2011 Champions League group stages begin this week, and while we know all about European giants like FC Barcelona, Real Madrid and champions Inter Milan what about the lesser known teams? In the first part of a new mini-series we will be taking a look at some of these so-called smaller clubs and assessing what to expect from them in this season’s Champions League. And who better to start off the series than Russian football expert James Appell, who we are delighted to welcome for his Just Football debut. James is here to let us know what to expect from 2009 Russian champions Rubin Kazan:
All the talk in the build-up to Rubin’s 2010-11 Champions League campaign has concerned their pairing, for the second year in succession, with Barcelona in the group stages. Last season the Russian club came away from the Nou Camp with a shock 2-1 victory, with Turkish international Gökdeniz Karadeniz scoring a winner which will go down in history as one of Russian football’s finest moments on the European stage.
Rubin could count themselves unfortunate last year in being grouped not just with Barcelona but with the azulgrana‘s semi-final opponents and eventual champions Inter. They finished third ahead of Dynamo Kyiv, but go into this season’s Group D alongside Barça, Panathinaikos and FC Copenhagen with high hopes of qualifying for the knock-out stages.
On the pitch Rubin are as good a side as last season, despite a number of personnel changes. They have lost their top scorers from last season, Aleksandr Bukharov and Alejandro Dominguez, to Zenit St Petersburg and Valencia respectively. Talismanic former captain Sergey Semak has also departed to Zenit, perhaps foolishly believing the St Petersburg club had a better chance of progressing in the Champions League (they fell at the final qualifying stage to Auxerre so Semak will have to make do with Europa League football this year).
In have come some players of real quality. The club broke their generally frugal transfer habit by splashing out around €20m on Hoffenheim’s Brazilian attacking midfielder Carlos Eduardo, money which looks well spent after he hit two superb goals on his league debut last weekend. Belarussian Sergey Kornilenko, a proven goalscorer in the Russian Premier League, arrives from Zenit St Petersburg to add some bulk up front, while Obafemi Martins has been drafted in – no doubt motivated by a hefty pay packet – after a single disappointing season at Wolfsburg.
But it’s in defence where Rubin are a match for any Champions League team. Last season they were positively miserly at the back, conceding just 21 goals in their 30 league games. This year they have improved, their opponents beating goalkeeper Sergey Ryzhikov just eight times in 20 league matches in 2010. Spaniard Cesar Navas and Argentine Cristian Ansaldi are the outstanding defensive performers, while the addition of Genoa full-back Salvatore Bocchetti has added further steel. Make no mistake – Rubin will be a hard nut to crack.
Managing the team is miracle-worker Kurban Berdyev. A devout Muslim who stands on the touchline during games holding prayer-beads, Berdyev is also a very shrewd tactician. And having led Rubin to back-to-back titles for the first time in their history, plus that famous victory at the Nou Camp, the Turkmen coach has been awarded every single honorary title which the city of Kazan has to offer. He likes to employ a 4-2-3-1 formation with a flat back four screened by Ecuadorian Cristian Noboa. On the wing the fleety Alan Kasaev will cause problems, while it looks likely that the physical Kornilenko will be Berdyev’s preferred starter alone up front – aided by Carlos Eduardo just behind him.
One further factor in Rubin’s favour is the club’s geographical location. Some 800 kilometres east of Moscow, Kazan is the easternmost city to host Champions League football this season. With a flight of some six or seven hours awaiting clubs from Western Europe, it’s a trip many teams will take with some trepidation. And by the final round of group matches, scheduled to take place in December, the weather in Kazan should be nice and snowy for visiting sides, with temperatures plunging well below zero. Yikes.
Key player: Cristian Noboa
Largely unheralded, the Ecuadorian midfielder has become a mainstay in the Rubin side. Originally signed as an attacking midfielder, Noboa has succeeded veteran South African MacBeth Sibaya and the departed Sergey Semak as Rubin’s anchorman in the middle, and has also inherited the club captaincy from Semak. Much of the team’s defensive prowess can be put down to his impressive performances in the holding role, while the 25-year-old is equally influential in attack as Rubin’s set-piece specialist.
Key player: Alan Kasaev
The 24-year-old Kasaev was playing second-tier football just eighteen months ago. But having signed for Rubin after some excellent performances for Kuban Krasnodar last season he is now one of the first names on Berdyev’s teamsheet and has just received a call-up to Dick Advocaat’s Russian national side. Small in stature but quick and skilful, Kasaev is hot property in Russia having come rather late to the big stage. He also does his bit to feed stereotypes of Eastern Europe by sporting a rather fetching mullet.
Prediction: 2nd. I’m rather biased when it comes to Russian teams, but Rubin are a genuinely good side. It would be a real miracle should lightning strike twice and they win in Barcelona for the second year running. But there’s no reason why they shouldn’t take at least seven points from their home matches, which should put them in a good position to qualify second behind Barcelona.
What to expect from… continues tomorrow. And don’t forget to check out James’ own excellent sports blog The Cynical Challenge.
(photo via Veikko on Flickr)