Big-spending Anzhi take on relegation-battling Volga in the 23rd round of the Russian Premier League season later on this evening (8.30pm local time). The clash will see Anzhi’s marquee buy Samuel Eto’o handed his home début at the 20,000-seater Dinamo Stadium, with the Cameroonian striker likely to make a first start for his new employers (despite travelling to Africa during the past fortnight for a Cup of Nations qualifier). During that time, those of his teammates not on international duty met Kazakhstani outfit Aktobe in a friendly scheduled as part of the preparation for the clash with Volga – playing in the top-flight for the first time since being reformed in 1998.
However, despite putting out his strongest possible side for the Aktobe match, one which included World Cup winners and recent Brazilian internationals, coach Gadzhi Gadzhiev saw his team humiliated 3-1 by their Asian opponents (not as exotic as that may sound, given that the Republic of Dagestan, where Anzhi have their roots, shares a border and the Caspian Sea with Kazakhstan).
While Anzhi have garnered headlines all over the world for their big-spending ways (stars lured to the club alongside Eto’o over the summer include Roberto Carlos, Yuri Zhirkov, Diego Tardelli, Mbark Boussoufa and Balázs Dzsudzsák), their guests for this fixture also spent pre-season convincing a number of decent players to sign up to their Russian Premier League cause. Coach Dmitry Cheryshev has been able to call on the likes of former Celtic midfielder Marc Crosas, Gogita Gogua, Lasha Salukvadze, Miklós Gaál, Mersudin Ahmetović and János Székely this season, and he’ll need such players to be at their best if Volga, three points above the relegation zone, are to improve on a run of two wins from the last 11 league games later today.
The last time these two sides met, in the reverse league fixture at Volga’s Lokomotiv Stadium back in May, Anzhi won 2-1. When they last met in Makhachkala, almost two years ago to the day in the second tier, 8,000 people saw the sides share a 2-2 draw. Currently sat in sixth spot, seven points away from the third and final Champions League spot, Anzhi’s recent form has been a bit erratic. Nevertheless, they recovered from a disappointing 3-0 defeat against Spartak Moscow on August 14 to beat the side in third, Dinamo, before Eto’o came off the bench to snatch an equalizer against struggling Rostov last time out.
There will be a paucity of a club coach on the sidelines for the next four games, however, as Gadzhiev has been hit with a four-match ban after tempers flared during the game against Dynamo. After completing the signing of yet more players in the week (the already on loan dribbling, passing, shooting 23-year-old midfielder Odil Ahmedov from Pakhtakor, and Moroccan international defender Mehdi Carcela-Gonzalez from Standard Liège), the coach has been in a boastful mood regarding the club’s spend, spend, spend policy: “We were reasonably concerned because there have been cases in football where money was invested in an ill-matched mix of players and it turned out that the club had thrown their money away,” he said. “Our board was aware of that and tried to minimise the risk. We have not made a single mistake so far.”
Despite Gadzhiev’s confidence in the club’s transfer policy, rumours abounded this week that Anzhi’s backers offered Real Madrid coach José Mourinho €25million to coach their team. The Portuguese tactician turned the Russian club down, as, apparently, did Barcelona right-back Dani Alves. The club is doing its best to keep a connection with the fans, though, and after 90 minutes’ training on Thursday with every player back at the Moscow training base following international duty, the club scheduled a practise session in their Dagestan-based home stadium last night for fans to come and watch for free.
The Volga team arrived in sunny – 23º – Dagestan yesterday afternoon, with Azerbaijan international Vagif Javadov part of the party (the former Twente forward had picked up a knock during the international break, which saw him and six of his club colleagues called up to represent their respective countries). Crosas and Ahmetović have also travelled with the squad, despite missing some recent training sessions through injury.
Uzbekistani midfielder Sanzhar Tursunov, meanwhile, has spoken of the confidence running through the Volga squad ahead of tonight’s clash: “The working atmosphere of the team is normal coming into this game,” he said. “Points must be collected in matches against any opponent, even ones that are stronger than you by name, so there will be no shyness in front of the stars. When you come out on the field, you always set the same goal – to win.”
Having taken over at Volga in June, Cheryshev is now setting about instigating a 4-2-3-1 system at the club. His initial attempts to play a 3-5-2/5-3-2 backfired, and the club’s current run of four points from the last nine available is the nearest Volga have come to putting a successful run together under his command. Anzhi also like to play a 4-2-3-1, but the last time I saw them in action, I found their slow, possession-based tactics to be a hindrance to the system rather than a help. Yet now, with more quality players at the club’s disposal, it might just be that the formation the club plays is becoming increasingly irrelevant.
Anzhi vs Volga kicks off at 5.30pm in the UK, and can be watched live on Bet365.com.