On the Road to Kazan by Andy Shenk

Sunday morning saw Anzhi’s return to the pitch, following their 2-0 home victory over Kuban Krasnodar last wek. Anzhi played away to Rubin Kazan in a match-up of the world’s two most successful football clubs based in predominantly Muslim provinces.

In order to gauge expectations leading up to the game, I perused the team websites, as well as local media opinions of the contest.

AnzhiTV, on the official Anzhi website, provided a video preview of the game, which consisted of a recap of the previous week’s win over Kuban, as well as a reminder that Anzhi had not lost yet to Rubin this season, nor had they allowed Rubin to score.

RubinTV provided more background to Sunday’s game. They began by recalling that in 2009 both Anzhi and Rubin were champions, though Anzhi’s championship came in the second-tier Russian First Division, while Rubin captured Russian football’s most prestigious crown, the Premier League title. In the current season, heading into the 37th round, Anzhi sits one point ahead of Rubin, 59-58. As far as the standings are concerned, the two teams are 6th and 7th.

RubinTV then commented on the bevy of international and Russian national team players Anzhi has recently signed: Samuel Eto’o, Roberto Carlos, Mbarak Boussoufa, Yuri Zhirkov, Christopher Samba, etc. On top of that, former Russian national team coach, Guus Hiddink, now manages Anzhi and is making his first-ever appearance in Kazan. The video then gloomily pointed out Anzhi’s two victories earlier this season over Rubin…Anzhi being the only team to defeat Rubin twice so far.

After describing the condition of the pitch, which was barely approved for play (Kazan has suffered an uncharacteristically brutal winter), RubinTV, having built up the opponent throughout the match preview, concluded with a request for the home fans to show up and cheer their team on to victory. After all, the video’s announcer intoned, “We Are Rubin. We Cannot Be Stopped!”

The newspaper websites in the teams’ hometowns, Novoye Delo and Dagestanskaya Pravda of Anzhi’s Makhachkala and ProKazan of Rubin’s Kazan, did not provide a lot of info on the game. ProKazan’s website offered the most coverage, with their home page featuring some pictures of Anzhi players practicing in Kazan on Saturday and another article encouraging people to attend the game on Sunday.

Novoye Delo had a lengthy recap of last week’s home match with Kuban, while Dagestanskaya Pravda had nothing to say about the game. At the end of the Novoye Delo article, several paragraphs were devoted to the upcoming contest. The condition of the field at Tsentralnoe Stadium, where Rubin plays, was thoroughly criticized. The importance of the game was also emphasized, as both Rubin and Anzhi are fighting to secure a top-5 finish in the league and admission to European cup competition next season.

When the teams took to the field on Sunday afternoon in Kazan, the game proceeded as predicted. The one neutral preview of the game I read had foreseen a 0-0 draw, though the author felt certain that if a team were to get lucky, given the field’s poor condition, and score once, they would win the match. That is, indeed, what happened. Rubin scored from a free kick early in the 2nd half and went on to win 1-0 in front of 19,200 fans.

Neither team was particularly dominant, but, as Anzhi manager Guus Hiddink admitted after the match, “Though the game was fairly even, [Rubin] was more powerful.” Rubin manager, Kurban Berdiyev, as expected, was thrilled with the hard-fought win. His team was struggling coming into Sunday, having failed to win a single match in 2012 (0-3-1 in the Premier League and 0-0-2 in the Europa League). Berdiyev concluded his post-match remarks by acknowledging that this was “a very important victory from a psychological standpoint.”

Rubin and Anzhi flip-flop places in the standings, with Rubin moving into 6th, only 1 point behind Dinamo and Spartak. Anzhi, nonetheless, remains in striking distance of Europe, with only 6 points separating 2nd place, CSKA, Anzhi’s opponent on Saturday, and 7th-place Anzhi.

Looking Ahead

The coming week is a busy one in my sports world. Lokomotiv Kuban stops off in the Siberian city of Krasnoyarsk on Monday for a Russian league game with Yenisey. A win would guarantee Lokomotiv a spot in the PBL play-offs.

Tuesday, the San Antonio Spurs begin the final push of the 2011-2012 NBA regular season. They visit the Cleveland Cavaliers in the first of what will be an exhausting 16 games in 23 days, 5 of which will be shown on national television. The Spurs are currently 2nd in the Western Conference. A strong finish could allow them to catch front-runner Oklahoma City. More importantly, however, the Spurs will look to use their exceptional depth to spread out playing time and bring the squad to the playoffs healthy and reasonably well-rested.

The big game, of course, is Thursday’s Opening Day in Cincinnati. The tradition goes back well over one hundred years and is celebrated with the Findlay Market Parade in downtown Cincinnati before the game. This year’s game will feature the Cincinnati Reds hosting the new-look and renamed Miami Marlins, who will be making the trip to Cincinnati from Miami, where they host the defending World Series Champion Cardinals on Wednesday night.

Finally, I’m very excited about two weekend games: Anzhi visiting CSKA on Saturday in a match that could determine their chances at qualifying for Champions League competition next season and Lokomotiv Kuban hosting Zalgiris on Sunday in the first of a best-of-3 VTB League quarterfinals series.

Lokomotiv Kuban vs. Yenisey Krasnoyarskii Krai. Russian Professional Basketball League.

Monday, April 2, 2012. 6:10 AM CDT. Yarygin Memorial Sports Arena, Krasnoyarsk, Russia.


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