Big-spending Anzhi Makhachkala have fallen seven points behind table-toppers CSKA Moscow after the Dagestani side could only draw 2-2 with fellow 2011 surprise package FC Krasnodar.
Round 16 of the Russian Premier League’s 2011 season concluded with two of this year’s surprise packages coming together. Like city rivals Kuban, whom Krasnodar faced in the top-flight’s first ever non-Moscow derby last weekend, the home side were flying high in the table, and knew a win here could see them go sixth in a league of 16 teams. Putting that in perspective, Krasnodar were in the Russian third division just three years ago. But Slavoljub Muslin’s squad is definitely first division standard these days, with plenty of experience at the back, flair players like Andrei Gorbanets, and goalscorers like former Real Salt Lake and Kansas City Wizards striker Yura Movsisyan.
But of course, not many headlines are being generated about Krasnodar nor Dan Petrescu’s Kuban right now, despite the city’s other side also flying high (irrespective of Krasnodar winning the derby 1-0 at the shared 31,000-seater Kuban Stadium). The world’s media has eyes only for Anzhi and their star-studded cast of players at present, and it’s little surprise that this is the case when you scan their squad: Roberto Carlos, Diego Tardelli, Mbark Boussoufa, Balázs Dzsudzsák, Jucilei and João Carlos are the big guns in question (although only the Carloses played here), but Gadzhi Gadzhiev’s squad is also littered with a host of talented Russians.
Anzhi, sitting in fourth place before kick-off, needed a win here to keep up the pressure on league leaders CSKA Moscow and Zenit St Petersburg. They warmed up for the trip to Krasnodar in the best possible fashion, winning 3-0 away at Samara Kryliya Sovetov. Alas, the match finished on a sour note when a banana was thrown onto the pitch, the target being former Real Madrid left-back Carlos.
The home side immediately exploited the desire of the Anzhi defence to come forward, scooping a ball over into the space they vacated, but wasting the subsequently won corner. That chance charecterised a bitty opening five minutes, with the pressing half-hearted and the passing wasteful and long. But Krasnodar’s Portuguese playmaker Márcio Abreu sought to change that a minute after picking up a yellow card for handball, scooping a delightful through-ball over to Movsisyan. The Anzhi defence had zoomed out very high as one yet again, leaving the striker onside. However, he seemed as surprise as anyone that was the ref wasn’t going to blow his whistle to stop play, and a heavy touch wasted the potential attacker-favouring one-on-one opening.
The away side looked to go long from goal-kicks initially, dropping Jan Holenda to flick the high balls on to three narrow midfielders temporarily standing and bobbing about ahead of him. But Krasnodar gambled, packed three centre-midfielders behind Holenda, and used the loose balls their defenders more often than not won to release the tricky Aleksandr Erokhin on a leggy stride down the right on two occasions. The visitors couldn’t get their foot on the ball early on, and were the quality of Krasnodar’s many counter-attack-setting passes better during the opening ten minutes, they probably would have opened the scoring. Although Anzhi weren’t short of numbers in the midfield, Roberto Carlos just one white-shirted player standing in the centre and demanding the ball in the manner of a quarterback, Krasnodar’s central players shuttled back quickly and took up deep positions – thereby easily winning Anzhi’s eventual passes forward against relatively static attackers.
Gadzhiev’s side had long since given up booting their restarts upfield, instead always opting to start short. But the difference in formational discipline was well and truly highlighted during these phases of play – the home side holding a flat and corridor-free 4-1-4-1, the away side with no obvious shape, bobbing wherever each and every player pleased but not bothering to get back into what looked like their nominal 4-2-3-1 system when possession was lost.
Although Anzhi should perhaps be applauded for looking to play possession-based football, they had too many players looking to get on the ball in the centre of the park during the game’s first quarter, and this resulted in too many touches and not enough off-ball movement – something Krasnodar had in abundance. Muslin’s side didn’t seem that keen on holding possession themselves, however – seemingly willingly giving it up by trying an obvious and overly ambitious pass to Abreu, attempts João Carlos stepped out, onto and won every time.
It wasn’t the best of games at this stage; just three half-chances for the home side being the only goalmouth action by the 25-minute mark. Although Anzhi were now looking to release Holenda and the wingers earlier via more sharp and long diagonal passes, the majority of these were overhit, or the runner well-tracked by his marker. So perhaps unsurprisingly, it was sitting midfielder Odil Akhmedov who had his side’s first chance in the 27th minute – striding onto a lay-off on the edge of the box, and setting himself up for the shot before missiling it into the side-netting with his right foot. Yet one minute later, the supremely talented Erokhin nearly made Anzhi pay for their pitch-spanning lethargy in spectacular fashion – bringing an end to some in-box keepy-uppy tennis by casually setting up a chip-volley for himself via controlling the ball with his thigh on the right-hand of the D. The looped shot had Nukri Revishvili scrambling, but rebounded off the post.
The game resumed thereafter in its normal fashion: slow and sideways passing from Anzhi until they attempted something marginally more ambitious in the opponents’ half, thereby squandering possession. And in the 31st minute, they were nearly made to pay once again for their repeated wastefulness. Two passes after winning the ball back on the edge of their own box, Krasnodar striker Movsisyan was chasing after the ball towards the D after beating an offside trap poorly executed by the two centre-backs just in front of the halfway line. But unfortunately for the Armenian striker, the goalkeeper’s slide managed to force him too far round, and thus the angle proved impossible for Movsisyan to get the ball on target from.
Yet the away side didn’t shy away from coming forward, and the adventurous fluidity of their players was encapsulated perfectly in the 34th minute when Roberto Carlos sprayed out a pass from the quarterback position to his namesake on the left wing. The cross was poor, but sliced into the air by Krasnodar. There followed something of a scramble as Aleksandr Prudnikov battled for the ball with the ‘keeper: despite using height to his advantage, the attacker lost out.
But moments after Erokhin squandered another chance after one of his trademark well-timed ghosts into the box, Anzhi gave the hosts a taste of their own medicine. Prudnikov held the ball on the left byline, and drilled a cross back towards the right-hand of the D. Although Krasnodar had six defenders in the box, they had all gravitated towards the goal, leaving the penalty spot zone free for the away side to loiter in. Thus, Aleksei Ivanov had time to trap before firing his side into a surprise 1-0 lead six minutes before the break!
The tactics of the sides were altered in the aftermath, with Anzhi flattening and holding their back four (Benoît Angbwa, in particular, had been venturing forward and infield throughout the opening 45 minutes), and the home side pressing higher and leaving space for the away side to play their favoured long-diagonal passes. Yet despite a few scares at the back (it was obvious throughout that the Krasnodar players were operating on the same wavelength whereas Anzhi’s weren’t), Anzhi took their slender winning margin into the second half.
If Anzhi were going to squander this lead, you’d like to think it wouldn’t be because of their most experienced player, Roberto Carlos. But the Brazilian’s constant desire to play simple sideways passes with a bit of curl on them or as intricate little toe volleys handed Krasnodar a lifeline in the 49th minute. Movsisyan took on the pass made by the former Internazionale man on the edge of the D, but running with the ball towards goal, João Carlos showed great acceleration and balance to force the striker towards the byline and into a subsequent drive across the face of goal. Two minutes later, Joãozinho curled a free-kick from the shadow of the D over the bar. Talk about pulling level – the hosts had already had two great chances to take the lead inside the second half’s first 360 seconds!
You wondered if Krasnodar would start getting desperate, and that appeared to be the case in the 55th minute when Erokhin was booked for an embarrassing dive in the box. This was as useless as it was needless, as the home side were dominating possession against an away side seemingly even more sleepy than they had been in the first half.
Nevertheless, Anzhi soon begin to get back on the ball as the intensity of Krasnodar dropped – Holenda going close after a great squared cross from the left found the last-shoulder striker behind the defence, and Akhmedov then trying two keepy-uppys and an overhead kick which went well wide. But unsurprisingly, the away side were now generally more content to sit back, share possession and keep things tight – a tactic they didn’t execute well enough in the 60th minute. Abreu, who’d been cleverly locating pockets of space in the archways of Anzhi’s now narrower corridors, took the ball on the left flank. Immediately zooming sideways with the ball infield, Ivanov wasn’t quick enough to stop the midfield magician and Abreu chipped Revishvili from about 25 yards out for 1-1!
Krasnodar went for broke after getting that deserved leveller, replacing two midfielders – the booked Erokhin and anonymous Vladimir Tatarchuk – with two strikers – Spartak Gogniyev and Andrei Mikheyev. And after two of his colleagues hit shots into the side-netting from either side, the latter sensationally pounced to hand Krasnodar a 67th minute lead – bundling in after Revishvili could only parry a daisy-cutter into the goal-poacher’s path!
Anzhi coach Gadzhiev now opted to turn to his own bench, bringing on Ali Gadzhibekov for Makhach Gadzhiyev, and hauling off Prudnikov in place of Nigerian striker Isah Eliakwu. Yet irrespective of this fresh energy, the away side were finding it difficult to stop Joãozinho burning menacingly down the wing. In the 72nd minute, he saw a shot guided wide for a corner, and then himself delivered an inch-perfect set-piece which was headed over disappointingly by Gogniyev. The Brazilian wideman’s team had switched to a 4-2-3-1 with the score at 2-1, Abreu now in a quarterback position to feed Joãozinho – switching between the right and left flanks – on the break. But what they really needed was a leader, as in the 77th minute, a Roberto Carlos corner from the left was allowed to bounce in the box with no one taking charge, and Angbwa volleyed the loose ball home for 2-2!
After dramatically falling behind, Anzhi looked like they were settling for the draw in the final ten minutes. Roberto Carlos was replaced in a like-for-like change by Sharif Mukhammad, and they didn’t commit that much time or energy to attacking, save for the occasional scoop over the top which allowed Eliakwu to stretch his legs. But Krasnodar countered this by replacing Movsisyan with a defender, Alyaksandr Martynovich, and going 5-2-2-1 to see the game out. Nevertheless, with their attack-minded and pacy wingers, they still went forward, and caused the visitors one or two nervy moments. But it stayed 2-2, and Krasnodar stay in ninth spot – nine points above the relegation zone, but six points behind the Europa League qualification places!