This afternoon sees Newcastle reach the climax of their long, long journey out to Moscow, so it would be worth taking the time to have a look at what is waiting for them in the Last 16 of the Europa League.
Almost everybody has heard something of the Anzhi story in the last couple of seasons, as their big spending has hit headlines across Europe, but it is worth another look to fully understand their story in detail.
FC Anzhi, are, as the name suggests, based in Makhachkala, the capital of Dagestan, a region in southern Russia. It is an area of serious political turmoil, as locals there and more notoriously in neighbouring Chechnya are determined to achieve independence and prepared to use violence to fight for it – the presence of Muslim extremists in Chechnya presents another threat in this vein.
The region is desperately poor compared to the beauty of northern Russian cities such as Moscow and St. Petersburg and many parts of it are run by gangs armed with AK-47s and other military grade weapons. The situation there is so bad that not only are Anzhi forbidden from playing Europa League matches in Makhachkala, instead playing them 1800km away in Moscow, but the Anzhi players themselves live and play in Moscow “for security reasons”.
They fly south for their home league games – that is to say – in essence, that for them a home game is basically an away game in all but levels of support from the stands. However, in a region where there is so little to be positive about, the football team means a great deal to the locals, who support them with passion.
It is because of this passion that it is no surprise that when a local businessman and investor, Suleyman Kerimov, became a billionaire, he immediately bought the club he had supported as a boy, and the headlines began there, with Anzhi famously signing big name players such as Samuel Eto’o, Chris Samba, Yuriy Zhirkov and Roberto Carlos – who later became manager – in an effort to make the club a major European name, and to bring some pride to the community.
It must be noted that to his great credit, the intentions of Kerimov seem totally genuine, and he seems – unlike many Russian oligarchs – to be an honest, law-abiding, decent man. He has not only invested in the signing of players, but has made a great effort to get locals, especially children, interested in playing football, and uninterested in joining either the gangs or the extremists – he has funded the establishment of many youth football teams and the building of several state-of-the-art pitches for public use across the city of Makhachkala.
This is in stark contrast to the billionaire owner of Chechnya’s flagship football club, Terek Grozny – Ramzan Kadyrov, who was suspiciously elected as head of the Chechen Republic, is frequently pictured holding weapons, is suspected as being responsible for a host of crimes and is a dictator in all but name.
His major contribution to the community has been to stage a game between a Chechen XI and the Brazilian national team, in which he started himself up front and scored twice in a 6-4 defeat. While there is no doubt that Kerimov will be happy to boost his own name and reputation through his activity with Anzhi, hopefully this will offer some contrast as to what a bad owner is really like.
Despite the tiring routine of flying over 1000 miles for every home game, Anzhi have done well in the Russian league this season and currently sit 2nd in the Russian Premier League table, two points behind leaders CSKA Moscow – this would be enough for them to qualify for next season’s Champions League.
Although Eto’o has dropped to a deeper, more creative role than the predatory one he was known for at Barcelona and Inter, he has still contributed 7 goals in 19 league games this season, while the giant striker Lacina Traore has 9 to his name.
When last playing British opposition – in a 1-0 win over a weakened Liverpool side in November – they lined up in a 4-2-3-1 formation, with Eto’o looking not only to play Traore in but also to drive forward himself to score. Although they will be rusty, having only played twice – their Europa League games against Hannover 96 – since December due to the extended Russian winter break, they are formidable at home, having never lost there in Europe.
The 6’8 Traore will represent a significant physical challenge to whoever starts at centre-back, but has skill to go with his power, as shown by his exquisite goal against Liverpool in the group stage. Newcastle must hope for a solid point away, and a good performance and passionate crowd to help them out at home, as this will be their toughest obstacle yet in Europe.