Rubin Kazan made Russian football history by becoming the first non-Moscow club to win back-to-back league titles.
Rubin – whose name means “ruby” in Russian – hit top spot after 10 games and stayed there for the rest of the season. Yet, strangely, skipper Sergei Semak was the club’s only player selected by national team coach Guus Hiddink – even after they had won their Champions League game in Barcelona. Many critics cited the Dutchman’s conservative player-selection policy as one of the reasons for Russia’s defeat by Slovenia in the World Cup play-offs.
Besides local talent such as goalkeeper Sergei Ryzhikov, winger Aleksandr Ryazantsev and striker Aleksandr Bukharov, Rubin have made good use of their foreign signings: Argentinian playmaker Alejandro Dominguez, his fellow countryman and wing-back Cristian Ansaldi, and former Turkey midfielder Gokdeniz Karadeniz.
Kurban Berdyev’s nine years as Kazan coach are all the more remarkable considering the team’s poor form in the middle of the decade. Now 57, he wanted to resign at one stage but the club talked him out of it.
That was not the case, however, at most Premier League clubs this past season. The 16 teams get through 28 managers in 2009, with CSKA Moscow being the most trigger-happy. Having started the campaign in March with ex-Brazil star Zico in charge, the army team replaced him with Juande Ramos six months later. The Spaniard had hardly learned his players’ names before he was fired and Leonid Slutski, who left Samara’s Kryliya Sovetov in mid-season, took over to lead CSKA to fifth – their first finish outside the top three for eight years.
A good Champions League show in Manchester and a November win over arch-rivals Spartak was no consolation for the majority of CSKA fans. The loss of national team winger Yuri Zhirkov to Chelsea and the league’s best striker Vagner Love, who returned to Palmeiras in Brazil on loan, deprived the team of its speed and goalscoring potential.
Spartak Moscow underwent major changes during the season. Valery Karpin, the club’s general director, fired coach Michael Laudrup in April just four games into the new term. Former Russia midfielder Karpin, 40, then took up the post himself, despite a lack of coaching experience and no professional licence, and steered the side to a second-place finish – a major surprise, considering their poor start.
For the nine-time Russian champions it was their fourth runners-up spot in five years and they intend to go one better next term. Spartak’s hopes will depend on Brazilian imports Alex and Welliton, probably the best attacking duo of the season. The speedy Welliton was the league’s top scorer with 21 goals, while 27-year-old Alex produced a number of terrific assists, earning him a national team call-up.
Zenit St Petersburg’s third place was a step back for the 2008 UEFA Cup and Supercup winners, who were champions in 2007. Although the country’s richest club, thanks to their sponsorship by Gazprom, Zenit had to cope with the loss of three top players who chose to move abroad: Anatoliy Tymoshchuk (Bayern Munich), Pavel Pogrebnyak (Stuttgart) and Andrei Arshavin (Arsenal). Portuguese playmaker Danny also missed most of the season through injury.
Just like Spartak Moscow, a couple of poor results in the final phase of the season ended Zenit’s hopes of overthrowing Rubin.
Dick Advocaat, the most successful coach in St Petersburg’s history, departed to take charge of Belgium’s national side. He left Russia in tears, cheered by thousands of fans at the airport. The new man at the Zenit helm is former captain Anatoli Davydov.
Lokomotiv Moscow were back on track after their former coach Yuri Semin returned from Dynamo Kyiv in the middle of the season, while FC Moscow, growing under the wise guidance of Montenegrin manager Miodrag Bozovic, were another success story.
Dynamo Moscow finished a disappointing eighth but suffered from a lack of quality in depth. New financing has been promised by the owners for next season, which may open up new horizons.
FC Khimki from the region of the same name outside Moscow, produced the poorest show in the Premier League history by winning just twice in 30 games. They finished with 10 points and were relegated, along with Kuban Krasnodar. The two vacant places will be taken by returnees Anzhi Makhachkala and newcomers Sibir Novosibirsk.
PLAYER OF THE SEASON
Igor Akinfeev (CSKA Moscow)
The national team goalkeeper recovered after last season’s serious injury and was probably the only Russia player exempt from criticism for the failure to qualify for the World Cup finals.
COACH OF THE SEASON
Kurban Berdyev (Rubin Kazan)
Proved his 2008 triumph was no fluke. Capable of changing the rhythm of a game with tactical changes, he also found the right balance between foreign and local players as well as between youth and experience.
NEWCOMER OF THE SEASON
Alex (Spartak Moscow)
The Brazilian joined Spartak at the start of the season and instantly earned recognition for his technical skills and passing ability.