Adam Grimshaw –
The 2018/19 Russian season came to a close at the end of May with all eyes on the Champions League spots still up for grabs. It took to the dying minutes of the final day to decide.
Zenit had been installed as champions earlier in the month with their outright dominance undisputed all season, cruising to the title with an 8 point gap. The Lions earned themselves an automatic qualification spot to the Champions League group stage.
Rather it was left to Lokomotiv Moscow and FC Krasnodar to slog it out until the last day. The second place finisher would claim Russia’s only remaining and highly coveted Champions League group stage spot.
The third place finisher would be left with the difficult task of slogging it out in the arduous qualifying stages of the competition.
Ultimately, it leaves Krasnodar with an uphill task, and Russia has never featured a third team in the group stage of the Champions League.
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Zenit look to live up to their lost dream
The boys from up north represent Russia’s greatest chance of success (whatever that may be) in the Champions League. Not only do the Lions have the most experience in the Champions League but they are the country’s only team to have lifted a major European honour to date.
Since their arrival on the international scene with a victory over Rangers at the 2008 UEFA Cup Final, they’ve failed to live up to high level of expectations they set themselves over a decade ago.
Following the removal of Roberto Mancini, Zenit found a more than adequate replacement in Sergei Semak who has driven them back to the plinth of Russian football. Now Zenit have two goals ahead of them – to secure that position at the head of their domestic league, and to push on in Europe. The latter will be much more difficult.
Zenit remain Russia’s most experienced Champions League outfit in most recent years, but last season’s Europa League campaign will see them going into next season’s European forays with severe question marks.
Despite having experienced European operators like Branislav Ivanovic and Claudio Marchisio among their ranks, Zenit failed to truly stamp their authority on the Europa League last time round.
They did manage to top their group, only losing one match to Slavia Prague in the process. Although once faced with a higher calibre of the opponent in the knockout stages, they sadly crumbled.
What’s more, Zenit endured an abysmal record on the road having failed to win a single match away from home in Europe all season.
The positives? As Russian champions Zenit will enter into the Champions League group stage as top seeds, meaning they could potentially get an easier time of it when it comes to potential opponents. That could be the only grace they’re afforded though.
Lokomotiv steam ahead to successive Champions League appearances
If the toils and troubles that Russian teams have endured in the Champions League over recent years could be typified by one team’s experience, it would surely be Lokomotiv Moscow’s woeful display last season.
Jumping straight into the competition as reigning Russian champions last season, Lokomotiv were dealt a decent hand with Schalke, Porto and Galatasaray. Unfortunately, they lost all but one match, including comprehensive defeats away from home to Galatasaray and Porto.
Their first foray into the Champions League in 12 years was ultimately a disappointment, but now they have the chance at redemption. Automatic qualification for the Champions League should, by itself, represent a top achievement for Loko.
After all, were you to cast your eyes back to last September when they sat in 11th place in the league after a woeful start to the season it looked like Lokomotiv would have their feet firmly rooted on Russian soil the following season.
Cue a phenomenal fight back. Only succumbing to one defeat in 2019 meant Lokomotiv pulled off a phoenix rising from the ashes style fight to finish in second place.
Top that off with a Russian Cup victory over Ural Yekaterinburg in Samara at the end of May and Lokomotiv have had a commendable season.
Expectations in the Champions League certainly won’t be high, but hopefully, they can build on experience. A third-place finish in the group and entrance into the Europa League would be a solid achievement.
Krasnodar’s star keeps on rising
Barely 11 years old, FC Krasnodar have had a remarkable ascent in Russian football. What’s more, over the last few years they have consistently challenged for European places, ensuring a level of stability not seen in any of the traditional big Russian clubs such as Zenit or CSKA.
Krasnodar haven’t exactly exploded onto the European scene, but five consecutive appearances in the Europa League mean they feel they’re ready to take it to the next level – the Champions League.
Krasnodar finished third in the league last season, only narrowly missing out on automatic qualification to Lokomotiv Moscow. While that will be disappointing, it does give Krasnodar a chance to step up to the big time.
They performed admirably in last year’s Europa League campaign, managing to qualify for the knockout stages behind group winners Sevilla, even overcoming their Spanish opponents once in the process.
In a similar vein to their other Russian contemporaries, however, the knockout stages proved difficult to handle. While they overcame Bayer Leverkusen, eventual Spanish Cup winners Valencia proved a challenge too far.
The likes of Valencia though represent a stature of club and level of football that Krasnodar will be facing should they make it to the Champions League.
First, they have to undergo the gruelling task of the Champions League qualifying stages, which is no mean feat. It’s not currently known who Krasnodar will face with the draw being held on 22 July and the third qualifying round games being played in the first two weeks of August.
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As of yet, who the Bulls of Krasnodar could face reads like a who’s who of tried and tested European teams at Champions League level. The likes of BATE Borisov, Celtic, Red Star Belgrade, Rosenborg, Dinamo Zagreb, PSV, and Olympiacos just to name a few, could all prove difficult opponents.
The Champions League feels one step too far for Krasnodar at the moment. Perhaps their best chance of making it to the lucrative group stage of the Champions League is by finishing in that all too elusive second place league spot.
Although for all Russian teams, it looks like it’s going to be an uphill battle given the level of quality, experience and consistency they’re set to face.
You can follow Adam Grimshaw on Twitter @adamgeorgie