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EvilDave

Soviet Sensation or Russian Write-off?

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"The Champions League we've dealt with. We pulled off a footballing miracle - against BATE and Legia - and are likely to face six very lucrative thumpings as a result. We've taken one already.

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"Domestically, we're wobbling a little. Of course we are - we're taking on the cream of continent - but we've got to be careful. If we don't hold one, we don't get back in the CL, and this season goes down as a flash in the pan and a facilities boost.

"The cup might have to go - Dila are next in the quarters - but we've got to prioritise the league now. At all costs."

Valeri was riding a European high, while all the while looking after his shoulder at home. Dinamo had only dropped points three times, but a defeat away at WIT and a hammering in Kutaisi didn't bode well for a busy final quarter. The race was well and truly on.

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"Five points, nine games. We've got WIT at home and Dila away - our final game of the season - but it'll be Batumi, Kutaisi, Tskhinvali that decide the title. We're nailed on to break our points tally from last year, but so are the other two. This will be tough, but we should do it. I'll be damned if we don't."

It was going to be close. Would Europe help or hinder? Could Valeri make it back-to-back titles? The next nine games would find out.

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"Well that was pitiful. Wind down the season with a series of 4-0 thumpings in Europe, and four consecutive draws in the league. If there was ever a manual on how to blow a comfortable lead, this was it - tired, weary bodies desperately trying to rag themselves over the line. Last year we pulled it off. This time, with the Champions League there to demoralise us every week, it was much harder."

Valeri's boys found the going tough, going out of the cup to Dila, picking up regular beating in the CL, and running winless all the way through November. It was not a nice time to be a Dinamo fan.

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"And yet. Dila on the final day, title on the line, our draw at Chikhura meaning we needed a point. We got the go-ahead goal from Guruli, then held on for dear life. It wasn't pretty, and really it's nothing to be proud of, but we held on. Dila made us fight, but we somehow scraped through. Somehow. I need a lie down."

Somehow, despite a torrid run of form, Dinamo did. Valeri was a champion once again.

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"How did we manage it? I'm not sure. From back to front we were excellent for three quarters of the year - Dalakishvili at the back, captain Tsertsvadze in the middle and that man Guruli setting records up front - but if we're to make it three and do something in Europe next year, we need a second team.

"I don't mean an active reserve side - although it would help having the fringe players actually playing - but a first-choice side to put us ahead in the league and take on Europe, and a second group ready to step in and see us over the line domestically. The board have given me a budget I haven't seen since Astana, and I'll be taking Georgia out to dinner, getting her drunk on some fine Kakheti wine and then stealing all her best prospects. The dynasty is threatened, and I can't stand for that."

Usually, Valeri would be thinking about upping and leaving, but not this. A nervy title win coupled with a new challenge - that of the Champions League - meant his heart was firmly in Tbilisi for the time being. As long as he kept winning he would do his reputation no harm, and he thought he had figured out exactly how to do just that. The coming season would test his theory.

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"First of all, the Super Cup. We lost it, the first time I've managed that in my whole career. We owe Dila one.

"Second, transfers. And man, were we busy. We were the league's big spenders - although WIT ran us close with all their Ukrainians - but we've got a deep squad packed with quality as a result. In particular, freebies Chedia and Gogenia will add to our defensive strength, while Aliyev, Gotsiridze and two-time loanee Nozadze strengthen our attacking options significantly. The two XIs plan won't be too strict, but all of those will see ample time on the field.

"Finally, the opening quarter. Five wins and only one defeat, but we've been crunching the gears and dropping unnecessary points all over the place. We should have put away Saburtalo, should never be losing in Batumi, and relied on no less than three last-minute winners elsewhere. We're getting the rub of the green at the moment, but we can't rely on that all year. We've got to be better."

A busy winter had seen Dinamo buy up a whole host of Georgian talent, leaving them by far the most homegrown team in the league - the only foreigner near the starting line-up was centre-back Koydan -  and with a far deeper squad than before. However, despite being superior to the majority of teams in the league, Valeri's men were struggling to put away opposition, and were struggling for fluency. Whether it was the new bodies or the increased rotation remained to be seen, but it was a problem Soldatkin needed to solve quickly.

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"We're going to be scrapping with Dila and WIT again, you can see it already. We're top, having rotated reasonably heavily to keep both squads happy, but we've not been convincing at all. We'll need to be better for the next 18 if can compete while playing in Europe, but the other members of the Big Three have the depth to keep up a challenge too - Dila in particular are smashing opponents when they do win. It's going to be a long old season."

Valeri seemed remarkably hesitant to label his side favourites, despite sitting top after the opening round. With his two major rivals also starting strongly - although crucially both failing to beat his Dinamo side - it promised to be another hard-fought title battle. Whether his new rotation plan would see them come out on top remained to be seen.

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"Now that's more like it! Georgia doesn't know what's hit, we've hit eight wins on the bounce, and we've given the title every chance of staying right here in Tbilisi. WIT have sacked a manager, Dila have slipped off the pace, and Batumi surely won't keep it - we're looking good."

They were, there was no doubt about it. A near-perfect set of fixtures had Dinamo flying high and nine points clear at the halfway mark, a comfortable lead by anyone's judgement. However with European qualifiers looming large and memories of last season's near-collapse still fresh in the mind, Valeri would do well not to be too confident just yet.

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"It's time for Europe now - the perfect stage for us to show our talents. Last year's heroics didn't boost us enough to skip any rounds, but we're seeded for the first hurdle and Irish side Dundalk stand in our way. If we don't beat them, I'll be reading the riot act."

Dundalk were a significantly smaller side than the BATE outfit dumped out at the same stage last year, and Dinamo were understandably confident. It was at home they needed to keep winning.

"Oh, there was a World Cup in June as well, for what it's worth. Not a single Soviet state involved, and when the most interesting side in the last eight is Wales you know you needn't bother. Portugal took it home to become Euro and World champions, Rafa Benitez of all people following up Leonardo Jardim's work. It'll be me one day, mark my words."

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"You'll be shocked to hear we beat Dundalk. They only got on the board at home through a late penalty, and we only had to turn up for the second leg to see it out. We've faced tougher teams in the league this season.

"Next up? BATE, again. They'll want revenge after we bloodied their nose last season, and it's on us to prove it wasn't a fluke. It wasn't."

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"They must hate us in Borisov. We won away, came home and struggled. 2-1 down and heading out, up pops substitute striker Kupradze in the 72nd minute to head home and send us through the play-off. Once again, Valeri Soldatkin will be managing a side in the group stages.

"Our play-off opponents will be Dinamo Zagreb, perennial Croatian champions and one of the biggest teams in this round of the draw. We've got what it takes to beat them - we just need to show it."

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"Let's hear it one more time for the giant-killers! We silenced the Maksimir with a 2-1 win in the first leg, and with the Croats playing catch-up we could just pick them off at home. 2-0 up after nine minutes and a two-goal lead all the way through to the 78th minute, this was comfortable. Much more so than the scoreline suggests. Next year, this won't be a surprise.

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"As for the draw, no-one expects us to do anything, which suits us just fine. We've got unfinished business with Sporting after last year, while Ajax and United will come complacent. If the gods are smiling down, we might be able to sneak a point somewhere. Otherwise, we'll take our 4-0 defeats in cash, thank you very much."

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"Let's start with Europe. You've all seen the qualifiers, so I won't dwell on them. In fact, although we pushed Ajax and lost an unlucky late goal to Sporting, I won't dwell on the group fixtures either - at the moment we just aren't good enough or consistent enough to compete in the Champions League. Not yet.

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"Back home, the fixture pile-up has meant a tricky time. We've moved on the cup - although we could have done without extra time in Batumi - but three straight draws and a couple of narrow defeats mean the four wins - including a massive 7-2 in Kutaisi - were crucial. We're not in the finest of form, but we should have enough of a cushion to see things home, especially with two teams. Should."

European defeats and fixture congestion meant Dinamo's momentum was slowing, with defensive errors creeping in and costing them points. Valeri was still confident, but was remaining cautious before announcing a third straight title.

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"The title fight is down to two, and realistically we have to lose it now. Dila have been just as clogged up as we have thanks to the Europa qualifiers, but we lose that advantage now and need to fight. We play Dila twice in the back nine, and if we win one of them plus another four, the title is ours. That's well within our powers, and with a cup semi against Kolkheti Poti as well, we're on to take on Dila for both trophies. How I'd love to rub their noses in our dominance."

An 11-point gap looked very good, and with the Gori side stuttering too, Dinamo just needed to hold firm. They managed it last year and came from nowhere the year before, so the odds were very much in favour of the Tbilisi side. Valeri's rotation policy would be put to the test, but things were looking good.

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"Europe - nothing to see here. Especially not a 9-0 defeat. Nope."

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"The cup? Well, that went a little better. Kolkheti were breezed past in the last four to set up a final against title rivals Dila, and on neutral territory we had their number. Another trophy in the bag."

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"Now, the league.  A thumping win over WIT was exactly what we needed, but defeat in Gori meant the title race tightened in a major way. Bouncing back with a 5-1 win helped the nerves before a stupid home loss put the brakes on once more. Loko were brushed aside, and that meant a point at home to Dila would seal title #3, and leave us with two more matches should we need them.

"We didn't"

Despite some wobbles in the second half of the season, Valeri's men were able to wrap things with a couple of games to spare, thanks largely to their exceptional form in the second quarter. The cup came as a welcome bonus and completed a personal sweep of Georgia's available silverware for Soldatkin, while an historic first Champions League point eluded Dinamo. It had been another successful year, another learning experience, and another boost to Valeri's growing ego.

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"Four points make it look closer than it was really - those two draws in the last matches let Dila claw a few back on us. Ultimately, with a squad made up almost entirely of domestic players, we dominated the local scene. WIT are inconsistent, Dila can't quite match us, and the rest are a decent way back. With the Champions League money sitting pretty in the bank, there's everything here for the club to dominate for years."

Valeri was right. A fortune amassed, three titles won and the cream of Georgian talent at their disposal - the likes of Kupradze and Kvirkvelia particularly proving themselves this time round - Dinamo were well set to take a real grip of the domestic scene. Whether progress in Europe was possible was another matter entirely, and after three successful years - his longest stint at a single club in his career - Valeri was having doubts.

"What is there to do here now? Tbilisi is my home - I'd love to retire here - but the challenge is drying up. If I leave now, I leave the club with enough in the bank to pay all its debts, buy the entire national team, and with a winning mentality that would leave them well-placed to win titles for a decade. Staying with that sort of club certainly has its appeals, and to boost my reputation in Europe is something that, one day, I intend to do. To create a dynasty, I stay.

"However, if I am truly to bring the Union back together, my talents must be spread. Neighbouring Armenia and Azerbaijan have some interesting possibilities, as do the remaining Central Asian states. Moldova sits an an awkward outlier in my plans, and there will always be the 'big three' of Belarus, Ukraine and my homeland to conquer. Is now the time, or do I wait another year? I don't know."

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Right then folks, decision time.

I'm enjoying Dinamo a lot - partly because of my own love for Tbilisi and the idea of bringing back a Soviet giant. Staying would be no bad thing, but may get dull after another couple of years. Earning some points in the CL and maybe reaching a Europa knockout round is not an unrealistic aim, particular if I were to sign players from elsewhere in the USSR.

However, if Valeri is to meet his goal of winning every league in the former Soviet Union, he a) probably needs to get a move on and b) needs to think carefully about his next destination. Having already knocked off Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan, Kyrgyzstan and Georgia, there are several leagues remaining with signficantly lower reputations than the Umaglesi Liga. There are also a handful higher. See below:

Very low rep: Turkmenistan, Tajikistan, Armenia
Low rep: Moldova
Similar rep: Azerbaijan
Higher rep: Belarus, Ukraine, Russia

Assuming Russia is last on the list - and it may not be - Valeri will need to be careful if he isn't to either get stuck in the super-low rep leagues, or alternatively leave them too late - if he wants a job to win things in Russia, he'll have a much easier time getting there from Belarus than Tajikistan. Plotting a path from here starts to get tricky.

So, in short - is it time to leave Dinamo? And if so, does Valeri need to aim high or low? Answers on a postcard please!

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Some really cool developments here, I loved the move to Georgia and great to make it to 2 Champions League group stages on a row!

I think only you know what to do now. Personally if I was enjoying a club and still felt there was potential to do more there, I'd stay for longer, rather than moving just to fulfill a pre-designed challenge. But, I understand playing in a crappy league with only some challenge in Europe can become dull. Only you know whether you've already reached that point or not.

If you're leaving I would suggest Belarus is the best fit. It's a step up but not a massive one, and gets you closer to Ukraine/Russia.

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