Ruslan always enjoyed his trips to Western Ukraine, he had been there many times before as a child, and during his adolescence. This trip was different though, he knew his actions would probably set in motion a series of events that he could neither fully predict, nor halt, once initiated. He was, however, sure this was the right thing to do for Russia, for his family, and for himself. He took a deep breath, and slowly disconnected the valve on the pipeline in front of him.
This wasn’t any pipeline, this pipeline supplied much of western Europe, through the geostrategically pivotal Ukraine (which Russia now controlled), with vital gas and oil. The EU was already in recession after Brexit, and there would, no doubt, be repercussions for Russia, but it was now or never for operation Yellow Hammer, and Ruslan knew it.
At the winter break, Anzhi were sitting second in the league and had qualified for the Europa League Knockouts, you can re-read the story here.
During the winter break, there were no signings made by Anzhi although star player Doston Xamdamov had his release clause of £2.1m met by AEK Athens. The money was welcome, even if very little was made available to Ruslan.
Anzhi’s winter break was cut short for two legs against Ajax in the Europa League first knockout round. A very intensive training regime, similar to that during pre-season, had the desired effect with the majority of the squad ready for action. It did, however, come at a cost with both recognised right-wingers picking injuries. Coupled with the sale of Xamdamov it left Ruslan with a problem; a reshuffle was needed.
Normal complete forward, Zhamaletdinov moved out to the right wing, Puchkovskyi moved to the main striker berth, and academy graduate Agalarov played the FMPressure left midfield role. Things got off to a bad start when Tadic fired home, after only eight minutes, from over 20 yards. Anzhi hit back through winger Zhamaletdinov with Agalarov grabbing an assist. On 62 minutes, the Caspian Lads were bouncing when a long ball from centre back Likhachev found Puchkovskyi, who had the pace to break the Ajax defensive line, and fire home confidently. It remained 2-1 until the last five minutes when Hassan Bandé headed home from a corner (again). Just as Ruslan was beginning to settle for a draw, disaster struck. A[nother] corner goal, this time Daley Blind was left free to head home from six yards out. A final score of 2-3 meant Ajax were big favourites to progress. But this is FM, and anything can happen.
A week later 50 Anzhi fans made their way to the Johan Cruyff Arena, needing to overcome a 3-2 deficit to progress. With the game finely posed at 0-0, on loan star left back, Eduard Sobol fired a delightful free-kick high into the Ajax net on 48 minutes to bring the tie level. Anzhi needed only one more goal to progress and, to be honest, it looked likely. That was until Ajax forced a corner two minutes later. Almost inevitably, Ajax scored after Ivanov somehow managed to put the ball into his own net at the back post (this is getting annoying). Ten minutes later Ajax won a free kick out wide. As it was fired across goal no Anzhi player reacted, and Joël Veltman headed home.
It would be Ajax’s sole effort on target in the 90 mins. A 5-3 defeat felt harsh over the two legs, our weakness was clear and it will need to be rectified.
March saw the return the league action with Dinamo Moscow up first. Two goals from Zhamaletdinov gave Anzhi the three points. Thoughts turned to a possible title challenge with winnable games coming up. These thoughts did not last long, as Anzhi only managed to win one of their next five games across March and April. A 1-0 defeat to champions Spartak was no cause for concern, neither was a 1-1 away draw to relegation-threatened Rubin Kazan to finish the month.
It wasn’t until April that concerns were raised after a 1-0 home defeat to Krylja Sovetov during which Anzhi created very little and had, ‘only’ 51% possession compared to a season average of 55%, and three shots on target compared to an approximate average of six. Sovetov sat deep in a 4-2-2-2 and it seemed to nullify Anzhi’s attacking play. These stats were repeated away to Ural, who were only defeated courtesy of another great Sobol free kick, and also away to Rostov who held onto an early goal to take the win. Ruslan spent an afternoon spying and analysing these matches in a Starbucks when he recalled a motivational quote he had received from his great friend Mike According some months earlier.
Teams were now affording Anzhi some respect and sitting deep, limiting the space in behind which had been such a source of success for Ruslan so far.
With this in mind, he decided to become a little more attacking in his next two home games against Arsenal Tula and CSKA Moscow. A move to a positive mentality coupled with moving wide men into the AM strata was his solution. After 75 minutes, Anzhi were 4-0 to the good, and Ruslan decided to rest his best three players. On 90 minutes, panic spread throughout the team as Arsenal scored their third goal. Thankfully the boys held on for a massive 4-3 win. Once more, after 70 minutes against CSKA, Anzhi were 2-0 to the good. Ruslan felt secure enough to once again rest some players, a decision he regretted by the end as CSKA equalised in the 89th minute.
Going into May, Anzhi had Lokomotiv, Ufa, and Spartak to play. At this stage, Anzhi hoped to qualify for the Europa League, with Champions League qualification only an outside chance realistically. By the time Anzhi lined up against Lokomotiv the latter were already champions. A win for Anzhi would see them move into second (final champions league place) with two games remaining. Ruslan decided to revert back to his more defensive 4141 for these final games. A 2-1 win against Lokomotiv, only their third defeat, marked one of the best performances of the save (This game will be this edition’s Match in Focus, which I will release as a separate post in a couple of days time.). The 1-0 win against Ufa echoed earlier games in April were Anzhi struggled to create anything against an opponent who was happy to sit deeper. The goal finally coming from a rebound after Sobol missed a penalty. So, it was down to a one-game playoff for Champions League football next season against current champions Spartak Moscow.
A draw was enough for Anzhi, and Ruslan channelled his inner Mourinho to record a shithousery 0-0. This game was duller than a TedRedwood premier and Ruslan couldn’t be happier.
A second-place finish represents Anzhi’s best ever finish in the league, and Ruslan was well on his way to becoming a club legend, along with another season of champions league football and all its riches. The grit and determination shown over the final three games, a particular highlight.
End of Season
Konstantin Savichev was again named fans player of the year leading the assist charts with 14, a new club record. He plays right wing but isn’t particularly fast or a great dribbler, or crosser, but his output is good. Ruslan does sometimes ponder if he could improve this further by bringing in someone more dynamic. Zhamaletdinov finished his debut season as the club’s top goalscorer with an impressive 13 goals, although only eight were scored in the league. For the first time in this save three Anzhi players made the Russian Premier League team of the year. Eduard Sobol, Denis Glushakov, and Timur Zhamaletdinov; all three brought in by Ruslan last summer.
Back in his safe house somewhere in the outer city limits of Lyiv, Ruslan switched on the news. EU leaders were meeting to impose sanctions on the Russian government for closing off the supply of gas and oil. Queues were already growing outside petrol stations, and public unrest was almost inevitable. The plan was working, the EU and NATO were weakening. Brexit had finally been completed, and agent Corbyn was gaining traction in the UK polls.
Comrade! If you have made it this far thanks very much for reading. If you haven’t a clue what is going on you can read earlier posts here.
You can also follow Ruslan Chepiga on twitter.
Over and out FMEadster!