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EvilDave

[FM17] Trials and Triumphs of a Turkmen

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Pre-season is done, and although financial constraints kept us close to home for our five tune-up matches, I feel like we're on the right track. There's been a huge turnover of personnel over the summer, but the early signs are that the squad is just about ready to launch our promotion push. Two 6-0 wins over local amateur sides should give us the confidence we need to get off to a good start, and if the momentum lasts long enough we'll be good to go up.

Before we deal with transfers, some personal news from myself - after almost a decade in management, I'm finally working towards the last of my qualifications. The timing is crucial here - I need to be signed off on the Pro Licence before I can manage in the top flight, and while other clubs have worked around the rules before, I'd rather not put myself in a precarious position.

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This is were the real action has been over the summer though, with 14 new men in through the door and more than 20 leaving the club, albeit it some only temporarily. None of those to leave on a free will be missed - their expiring contracts testament to their lack of value to us - but there are some key departures that have enabled us to raise crucial funds. Kulakov and Ushakov are both talented wingers with potential, but given we're running a narrow 4-4-2 and they lack versatility, we'll take the money and the sell-on clauses. Yakovlev, on the other hand, was our fourth-best playmaker before bringing in reinforcements, but Sibir were very keen. In truth, the man we'll miss most is the biggest fee, well-backed Armavir coming in for captain Zotov on the last day of the window with money we simply couldn't turn down. 

From back to front, we've brought in first-team talent across the board. Fedorov will compete with Tebidze to be our man between the sticks for the season, with Shabanov in front of him arriving as arguably our best defender outside of the extended loan deals. Defensive midfield reinforcements have largely been for depth, but in the deeper pair of our front four we have both Yakovlev as a more conventional option, and Bodrov as a left-field battering ram if things get tight. Up front, Zhamaletdinov will lead the side with his years of experience and goals at this level, while our most expensive signing Semin is one for the future as much as the present.

The squad is still not perfect - and the summer was deeply frustrating thanks to the maximum wage rules in the second tier - but it's better than it was before my arrival and we should only be looking at small gains to make a big difference. There's more money in the bank, the players are looking confident, and league campaign gets underway soon - I can hardly wait.

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We're up and running, and to good effect. In our four July games, we've seen the grind - edging out Mordovia on the road and then grabbing a last-minute winner all the way over in Vladivostok - and the cruise, hitting Lipetsk for four in our first home game of the season, much to the delight of our fans.

The final game of the month, hosting another Far Eastern side in Khabarovsk, ended in a disappointing goalless draw, but we were in charge throughout the 90 minutes and so far we haven't been bested by anyone. It bodes well, even if it is early doors.

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A table after 4/38 games means little, but nevertheless a spot in the top two looks good. It's no surprise we're joined up there by Anzhi, another club with a history of top flight football, and Tambov, who have spent big over the summer. As a whole, the league is very competitive - teams will take points off each other regardless of their standing - and if we can just maintain a little consistency, we've got every chance of promotion this year.

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Four games in July? Try seven on for size in August, with a half dozen league games and our opening cup game in to boot. Despite the hectic schedule, we came through the test with flying colours - goals galore from our attacking unit, progress in the cup after seeing off Ural, and consolidating our position at the right end of the league table.

We started the month very well, knocking Anzhi into a spiral of poor form with a second-half masterclass in Makhachkala. Former Premier League outfit Orenburg bored us to a draw in the next game, before we continued our strong away form at Baltika in what will be the furthest West we travel this side of European competition. The Kaliningrad side may have a World Cup stadium, but their team is sorely lacking.

Three in a row at home then followed and the goals kept flowing, four against an abject Spartak Vladikavkaz and then three each to see off Tyumen in the league and Ural in the cup. We rounded out the month with probably our most difficult fixture, away at Yenisey, and Nazarov's penalty was good enough to earn us the win. We're flying.

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The table backs it up. With 10 games gone, we're the only side left unbeaten in the second tier, and already a six-point gap has opened up to the play-off positions. It's still early days of course, but we're showing promotion form and are doing the business both at home ad on the road, and so confidence in the camp is growing. My confidence is on the rise too - I don't know how long the unbeaten run can last, but I suspect that by the time it ends, we'll already have enough of a gap to seal the deal. Top flight is the aim, and right now we're locked on.

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This is... easier than I had anticipated. The team have taken to my system like a duck to water, and September played itself out perfectly as a consequence. The Vityaz result looks close until you realise their goal came in injury time, and Nalchik never really troubled our defence despite holding us to a single goal. The match against the other club I could have chosen was great fun to watch, Arsenal going 3-2 up before I threw on Semin with half an hour to play - if he was more consistent, he'd be lethal - and we did a bit of a number on KamAZ, scoring with half our shots on target against a fired-up opposition.

In the cup we were paired with top flight opposition, and we upped our game accordingly. Khimki had a man sent off five minutes before Zhamaletdinov opened the scoring, and after that the space opened up to the extent we could have had significantly more than the two we ended up with. We're getting to the stage where only the big boys are left, and it'll be hard to make much more progress without causing a big shock. 

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Everything is going to plan - only four points dropped after 14 games, a six-point lead on Tambov and 12 to Tyumen in the play-offs, it would take a fairly monumental collapse for us not wind up in the top four, even with less than half the season gone. Of course there's a lot of football still to be played, but at the moment we're playing it rather well.
--

Kuban were in good form - ominously good form, even - and Saparow was earning the plaudits. His side had looked little more than also-rans the previous year before he took over, and yet they were now odds-on favourites for promotion as early as September. Our Turkmen hero was proving a sound investment for the Krasnodar outfit.

But this, he had to remind himself, was only the beginning. No second tier league would earn him the legacy he was looking for - that would only come in the Premier League. That was still months away, 24 games away - only then would Bahtiyar be truly tested against the great and good of the Russian game. This was one for the longer term.

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October started well enough. Very well in fact, a Zhamaletdinov hat-trick in just 20 second-half minutes blowing away our nearest challengers Tambov in a top-of-the-table clash. However, a week later we dropped points to a thoroughly average Ural, and then struggled to get going away in Tomsk, suffering our first defeat of the season away to the play-off challengers.

If that wasn't bad enough, we dropped points for the third game in a row at Alania in our next outing, before registering just our second league win of the month in the final game at home to Sakhalin, who were no doubt exhausted having travelled from what is practically Japan. However, before that we pulled off another shock in the cup, edging past top flight Terek courtesy of a single goal from Bodrov the battering ram, and booking a place in the last eight.

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The draw couldn't have worked out better for me. A home tie with my childhood team and the club I grew up adoring - and ultimately the side I would one day love to take charge of. Kuban have a wretched record against Spartak over the years, our visitors are flying high in the top flight, and we'll be massive underdogs - but this is my chance to impress, to put myself on the Spartak radar, and perhaps even to hasten the move I one day hope to make.

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Despite our October struggles, we are still looking comfortable at the top of the table. Our win over Tambov, coupled with two further defeats for the second-place side, gives us an eight point cushion over our rivals, while we hold an advantage of 13 over the nearest play-off chasers. We could do with turning our stuttering form around before the long winter break, but I'm confident at this point that our promotion push is well and truly on track.

As an aside, a quick glance down the standings at the fortunes of Arsenal Tula reassure me that I made the right decision in plumping for Kuban rather than a side who, at the time, were a Premier League club. They're sinking like a stone, are in real danger of successive relegations, and in serious financial trouble. I'm not sure even I would be able to stop the rot at this point.

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I mentioned that we needed to stop our stutter before the winter break, and our opening game of November was not the solution. A lead handed to us by a shoddy backpass midway through the first half was subsequently blown at home to Mordovia, and our second loss of the season started the alarm bells ringing - we were poor, and there was no avoiding it.

Mercifully, Luch put up very little fight four days later, and my demands for vast improvement were duly met as we cruised to a 4-1 win. A narrow victory at struggling Metallurg was followed by a battling performance over on the Chinese border, a last-minute penalty just reward for our efforts in appalling conditions. Back home, in much milder climes, three goals in five second-half minutes saw off Anzhi for the second time this season, and it seems like we're back on track in time for the big freeze.

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When we resume in March, we'll do so against Spartak in the cup, and with our league position looking very strong indeed. Tambov are hanging with us in the title fight, but our lead over Nalchik has stretched to 17 points and we're looking very good for automatic promotion. The race for the two play-off berths is a very close one indeed - two wins cover everyone from 3rd to 11th - while the relegation scrap has roped in everyone from Baltika to Alania, while even Metallurg and Ural could still survive. It'll be an entertaining conclusion to the season, but as far as we're concerned it should be pretty straightforward - just keep doing what we've done so well already, and we'll be in the Premier League in no time.

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On the field, the long winter afforded us a few friendlies to prepare for the back end of the league season. We had good results, easily beating two third tier sides before holding top flight Rostov to an entertaining 3-3 draw. We then headed to Turkey, apparently with half of our division, and picked up two more wins against domestic opposition at the business end of our own league. A boost to our confidence, if nothing else.

Off the field, we welcomed two new faces. Alex Kukin joins from Zenit for a nominal fee and will take a spot in the development side for the time being, while Andrey Rudenko joins our first team squad after being let go by the St Petersburg side in the summer. He should be good enough to fight for a starting spot immediately.

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Elsewhere, I ran the rule over the latest batch of academy graduates, and this is some real potential in this year's cohort. Holding man Semakin could find himself rotated in as early as this year if we seal promotion early enough, but sadly the one thing the brightest prospects all have in common is a shocking lack of drive and determination. They'll need to buck their ideas up if they're to make it as professionals, but the raw ingredients are there at the very least.

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My first meeting with my beloved Spartak as a manager ends... respectably. When Martinez put them ahead after 150 seconds I suspected we would be in for a long day, but despite the same man netting again a quarter of an hour later, we didn't go without chances ourselves. Zhamaletdinov forced their goalkeeper into a couple of good saves, and we were just building up a head of steam for the dying stages when Maksimovs saw red. We were outplayed by a superior team, but were by no means overrun, even if some of my men were overawed at the outset, and hopefully the man who matter at Spartak will have seen something they liked in my style. Practically, we can turn all our attentions to the league from now on.

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After the Spartak game we stayed at home to thrash Baltika, a debut goal for Rudenko the icing on a cake baked in the opening 15 minutes. Orenburg were then victims of our late show as we levelled in the 85th minute and walked away 3-1 winners, and continuing on our travels we saw off Tyumen in a far less eventful affair altogether.

However, March ended on a sour note with the teams worst performance of my time in charge. Yenisey are a decent team, in the play-off hunt and with previous top flight credentials, but they are not a side we should be losing to, especially not at home and certainly not 4-1. I'm not sure quite what went wrong - every one of their efforts on target hit the net - but we were badly off colour, and more showings like that will give our rivals home we cannot afford to let them have.

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Thankfully, Tambov have also been pretty shocking, and with 10 games to go in the season we now find ourselves with a 14 points advantage over our closest challengers - doubling our lead in just four games. Mordovia, Vityaz and the chasing pack are closing in on the league's big spenders now, but our gap to the play-off spots is at almost 20 points, and it will take a catastrophic collapse for us to stay in the division for another season. The play-offs are still very much up for grabs, but we shouldn't need to concern ourselves with them unless something goes horribly wrong.

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Two more defeats in April as things began to draw to a close, but we could have few complaints. In both Podolsk and Nalchik we came up against two sides looking to fight their way into a play-off spot, and on both occasions our hosts came out narrowly on top of tight games. In an ideal world we'd have nicked the goal, but you can't win them all.

We did win the other four though - easing to a win in Vladikavkaz on the back of a brace from Zhamaletdinov, cruising to a routine 2-0 against my would-be employers, stealing all three points against KamAZ after a miserable match, and then upping our game against Tambov. Going to the home of our nearest rivals, we kept up with them for the first half before turning on the style in the second, grabbing two goals of huge significance...  

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There's something oddly appropriate about sealing both the title and promotion at the home of the side who have been trying and failing to cling on to our coattails all season. We now have an unassailable lead over Tambov at the top of the table, and we'll be playing Premier League football next season. What Kuban have failed to so on their last few journeys to the top has been stay there - that will be my next challenge.

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Evidence of our superiority, if it were needed. 15 points clear of Tambov, 18 of the chasing pair of Nalchik and Mordovia, and comfortable champions with four games to spare. We've made this look a lot easier than I thought it would be at the start of the season, and the hard work now begins as we plan our path to survival in the top flight. After almost a decade of trying, I've made it.
--

Saparow could not help but pleased with himself - after 10 years of management, mostly in Central Asia, he would be in charge of a team in the Russian Premier League. It wasn't Spartak - not yet, at any rate - but it was a huge milestone. Not only that, but his Kuban side had made incredibly light work of the second tier, hitting the top of the table early on and never once relinquishing their position.

There were still four games left for Bahtiyar and his men to see through - soak up the adulation of the fans at - before what was bound to be a busy summer of activity in Krasnodar. This time, there was no chance he was looking to move on, and this time he would be facing a very different challenge. After a decade of league titles, our Turkmen hero would now be fighting for survival. It would be a whole different ball game.

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Four largely meaningless games to round out the season, with three victories and one aberration in Ekaterinburg - a result that would actually end up keeping them safe for the season. We were shocking there, but I may also have over-rotated the side a little.

Otherwise, we finished well. Nazarov nicked us a late victory at home to Tom, we blew Sakhalin apart despite travelling half way across the world, and then rounded out our season with a win over Alania that barely had us breaking a sweat.

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The league finishes with us dominating as we have all season, 18 points clear of Tambov, who themselves only just held off the challenge of Spartak Nalchik after a poor end to the campaign. Mordovia take the second play-off spot, while at the bottom both Ural and Arsenal Tula survive by the skin of their teeth. Heading into the final day there were still several sides fighting for survival, but our focus was simply on celebrating by that stage.

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With a 38 game season we used a number of players, but the core of the squad appeared in the overwhelming majority of matches. Something of a concern is that a good number of our key players have already reached their peak and may not make it in the Premier League, but that's what the summer is for - stage two of the rebuild.

One man who will be sticking around - despite his age - is top scorer Zhamaletdinov. He tailed off a little bit towards the end of the season, but his goals were crucial in keeping us in our lofty position. At the back, fellow new signing Shabanov will likely start the new campaign at the heart of our defence, while captain Boiangiu was a key man at both ends of the pitch. 

So, while there's work to be done, there's the making of a good side here - if there isn't, I've been working miracles for the last year. Our cup exploits, knocking Khimki and Terek out before succumbing to Spartak, give me hope that we can hold our own in the top flight, but the proof of the pudding will be very much in the eating, and I've got some baking to do.

Edited by EvilDave

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After what ended up being a reasonably short summer break, we are back with an intense pre-season schedule. None of our opponents were particularly challenging - Croatia's Rijeka the only club of note venturing to Krasnodar - the lower quality of competition saw us rack up some impressive wins and, just as importantly, allow the new faces in the squad to get to know one another in a positive environment.

To be honest, 37 goals scored and just four conceded sounds a lot better than it is given the list of opponents, but it's what we needed. This was not the year for expensive overseas tours or testing ourselves against the cream of Europe. We stayed at home, we gelled together and we won big. Crucially, I feel like we're ready.

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All of our business was done before the final friendly fixture, but there was an awful lot of it. We brought in 16 new players over the course of the summer, and while there are a good number of them - the five from Togliatti plus Pryanikov from Zenit - who were brought in with one-and-a-half eyes firmly on the future, that still leaves almost an entire starting eleven worth of players for the here and now.

Starting with those leaving us for fees - the list of contract expiries, releases and loan isn't worth starting with - and the big deals out of the club this year were in midfield. Fellow promotees offered us seven figures for Timofeev, which was too good to turn down and funded almost all of our signings, while Dorofeev chose to stay in the second tier by moving to the Far East. Kondryukov wouldn't cut it in the top flight and heads to Georgia, while we collected an unexpected windfall from the sale of Anisimov, a man who only once featured in my starting squad and whose potential is questionable at best.

Arriving, we have bolstered every area of the team. Between the posts, CSKA releasee Gavrilov will give Fedorov a reasonable challenge for the gloves. In front of them, an old friend joins from Dila in the form of the ever-improving Davit Shengelia, Polyakov signs permanently after a loan spell, and Muravjov will fight with him and Shabanov for a central defensive berth. Further on again, Kucher will replace the departing Dorofeev in front of the defence, and then behind the strikers we welcome our second Muravjov of the summer and Zangiev, who is a bit of gamble having brought him in from a poor Ural side. Finally we made reinforcements up front to ensure we stay among the goals, snapping up the top scorer in the second tier last season in Vadym Kozlov and taking a potentially expensive punt on the experience of former Rostov man Kamehschikov

If there's one area of the squad I'm not sure about it is our strikeforce - Zhamaletdinov led us admirably last season, but has a track record of struggling at this level - but on the whole we're a much better side than we were 12 months ago. We'd have to be, but the additions have given me confidence that we can make a fist of survival. The board expect no more than an avoidance of the drop, but with the play-offs also in play, we need a 12th-place finish or higher to guarantee safety. Last year's cup runs make me believe we can make that happen, but scrapping for points is not something I've had to go before. It will be an interesting season, an exciting one - and I have no idea which way it's going to go.

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Welcome to the Premier League. We started the season away at Terek - a side we knocked out of the cup last year on home soil - and while new man Kamehschikov got off the mark late on, we were badly beaten by that point. Fortunately, the fixtures had us hosting fellow promotees Nalchik at home next up, and few summer signing Kozlov opened his account with a goal in each half. Up and running.

Following that was the visit of defending champions Spartak, and whereas last season we had escaped with a 2-0 cup defeat, this time an early Kozlov goal was mere consolation in a 4-1 hammering. But we're made of stern stuff, bouncing back to snatch a late, late win away in Perm before putting in our best performance thus far at nearby Armavir. Three first-half goals, including an own goal from our former captain Zotov, put us on the way to a big win, with Kozlov bagging his sixth goal in five games - not bad for a newcomer in a newly-promoted side. Three wins in five is no bad start at all - if we can keep this up we've be more than comfortable.

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Of course we're at a very early stage - although the top flight is only a 30 game season as opposed to the 38 we played last time round - but a seven-point margin to both the automatic and play-off relegation places looks very good at this point. We're breathing rarefied air up with the likes of city rivals Krasnodar and big hitters CSKA and Zenit, but quite frankly anything higher than 13th I'll be happy with. Even at this point, Nalchik look in deep trouble, so we need to beat three other teams. It sounds simple, and we've started well, but this won't be anything other than a huge challenge.

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Well, the honeymoon period didn't last very long. We should have beaten Tambov - the side we beat by 18 points in the second tier last season - but they set out their stall to get a point and managed it. Then we welcomed Rubin to Krasnodar and set ourselves up to avoid defeat, only to be hit late on and fall short of our solitary point. 

We had a chance a few days later to build some momentum with a cup tie away at third-tier Metallurg Lipetsk, only for me to over-rotate the side and watch as we needed extra time to scrape into the next round by the skin of our teeth. Then came arguably our biggest test so far, away at perennial title challengers CSKA in the capital. Zangiev got his first for the club and Shabanov nodded in in stoppage time, but we were thoroughly outclassed and let five in at the other end. One point in the month, the bare minimum in the cup - we need to improve. 

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The table now seems a little more realistic. The big guns have pulled away - by virtue of actually collecting points - while the sides around and below us are likely to be the teams to beat for the rest of the year. Nalchik are still pointless, Tambov are a team we know we're better than, and after that we need one more. Dinamo and Krylya both flirted with relegation last season so shouldn't shoot past us, but regardless of who we're down here with, it's going to be a grind.

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October has been and gone, and thankfully we've picked up. The first game of the month was by far our best of the season so far against Zenit, as we shocked the St Petersburgers with two Kozlov goals. Striking at the beginning and the end, we limited the visitors to mostly long-range efforts and thoroughly deserved the win. Unfortunately, we then hit an international break, losing all of the momentum gained, and on our return went down by a solitary goal in Ufa.

We then hit a special moment against Rostov, with Kamehschikov grabbing the winner against the side that agreed to let him go for nothing over the summer. The cup brought rotation and predictable disappointment against Zenit - a completely different performance to the one three weeks earlier - before a tough, scrappy draw at home to Krylya. We had aimed for a win in that one, but not allowing them to draw closer to us is a bonus nonetheless.

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We're approaching the halfway point of the season, and we find ourselves right in the middle of the table. If the season was to end here, I'd take it in an instant. To be fair, we're looking well clear of the bottom two - Nalchik have just the one point and Dinamo three - and we're two games ahead of Krylya in the last play-off place. Equally, we're only eight points behind the European spots, although the chances of us getting much higher than our current 8th place is low, unless one of Terek or Amkar tank. Still, we've already proved we can cope at this level - we just need to keep proving it.

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Four matches left of 2028, four matches before the long winter break, and four matches to try and pull ourselves further away from the relegation dogfight. First up, a crucial away win in Moscow, as both of our strikers struck in the first half against the struggling Railroaders. Again, we were then thwarted by an international break, and came back to the first top flight Krasnodar derby in a few years where we let ourselves down badly. Bragging rights to Krasnodar, again.

A week and half later we picked up our second win of the month, another struggling Moscow club falling to Kozlov's goalscoring as we racked up three in the first half against Dinamo. Three more days passed and we made it three from four, getting revenge on Terek for our opening day defeat with two goals in four minutes towards the end of the first half. A superb month, and one that puts us in a great place for the second half of the year. The only downside is a long-term injury to Semin - he hasn't featured much, but this will be a huge blow to his development. 

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We are five points off second - currently occupied by our city rivals - and a full 10 clear of the play-off spots at the bottom, having beaten both Lokomotiv and Dinamo in the last few weeks. There are three sides just two points behind us who could easily overtake us, and I'd be stunned if we held onto our current position, but we're looking very good for survival. So much so that my thoughts are beginning to drift towards strengthening over the summer - a dangerous thought given there are still 14 games remaining, but we're approaching that point.
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At the halfway point of the season, Saparow and his side find themselves in a far superior position to their pre-season predictions. Kuban were in the top six rather than the bottom four scrap they had been pegged for, and so our Turkmen's stock was once again on the rise. Unlike previous years, he was in no mood to be casting glances elsewhere - he was in Russia for the near future at least.

Of course, there was still plenty of football to be played - in Krasnodar and elsewhere - before the end of the season, and Kuban would have 14 games to play to confirm their right to play in the Premier League next season. That remained the primary goal - anything beyond that was a very, very welcome bonus.

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The long winter is finally over - we get ready to go again in just a few days - and our midseason break was a thoroughly successful one. We made a single change to the squad, bringing in young Latvian midfielder Ricards Kozacuks for £100k from Skonto Riga, and then enjoyed a couple of weeks on the Crimean peninsula. Without a UEFA-approved league there, the standard of football is pretty low, but four big wins have given us a big boost nonetheless.

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February also saw the arrival of the youth graduates for the year, and while this year's intake lacks the depth we might be looking for, there is definitely potential at the top end. Young winger Murad Aliev is the most developed player to emerge, albeit in a position we don't utilise, but the one with the brightest future is young centre-back Maximov, who has a real shot at going all the way. The facilities here at Kuban are the best I've experienced thus far, and I'm hoping that we can start a real conveyor belt of talent here - Maximov is a start, we had a handful last year - I'd love to see a team with several of these in the side years down the line. 

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We're back in competitive action, with my first visit to the Otkritie Arena as a manager doubling up as my 500th game in charge of a club. Unfortunately the champions were too much for us, full-back Nikolaev getting our only consolation. We took on another Spartak next up, travelling to Nalchik and dismissing the bottom side 2-0 to continue their miserable season.

Our second pair of matches both ended in draws, blowing an early lead to settle for a point at home to Amkar and then relying on a late Rudenko penalty to snatch a draw away at Tambov. That's twice we've failed to beat the side we beat to the FNL title last season, and we should be doing better - but with the season we've been having, I can't complain too much.

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Despite winning just one of our four matches, we hold onto our 6th place after two thirds of the campaign. That was good enough - we're shattering preseason expectations - for the board to offer me a contract extension which was gratefully accepted, and so I can now focus on both finishing this year strongly and then strengthening over the summer.

In terms of this year, we're still not entirely safe from relegation as we're nine points clear of Armavir in 13th, but with the sheer volume of sides beneath us we should be absolutely fine. There's still an outside shot of Europe - we sit five points off Krasnodar in 4th - but it's hard to see how we could possibly view our current position as a disappointment in any way, shape or form. It's been a good year, and we need to finish accordingly.

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April brought with it six of our final 10 matches, and while our star striker Kozlov was in fine form, netting four times across the month, on the whole we did not particularly look like a side with European aspirations. That's partly because we aren't, but it's still disappointing when we've climbed so high. In the first three games of the month, defeat in Kazan was all but inevitable - as was our home beating by CSKA - but we should have taken three points against Armavir, another late goal forcing us to split the points.

In the second half of April we fought well against Zenit but ultimately came up short - another 10 minutes and I'd have fancied us for a draw - before an evenly-matched game against Ufa saw up split the points courtesy of a Polyakov header. We then saved our best til last, travelling to Rostov and completing the double over them for the season with an emphatic 4-0 win to end our barren streak, Kamehschikov again on the scoresheet against his old club in a perfect first half. One month to go, and we need to carry this with us.

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With 12 points left to play for we could theoretically finish as high as 4th and as low as 13th, but we're mathematically clear of automatic relegation and in all likelihood will wind up somewhere between our current position of 7th and the 10th place held by Ufa. Our final four games are relatively kind - Lokomotiv, Krylya and Dinamo before a final day derby against Krasnodar - and so we'll be looking to finish with a flourish. As I've said on several occasions now, we need to build on this next year, but the hard work of survival is so very nearly finished. We've done ourselves proud, and the end is finally in sight. 

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The final month of the season, and seven points is a good enough haul for me. Our games against Loko was a genuine thriller that neither side deserved to lose, and so when Nazarov fired home a late equaliser it was the right result. We followed that up with another end-to-end clash in Samara, and in the 10 minutes either side of the break we turned a 2-1 deficit into a 4-2 lead which we just about managed to hold on to.

A much more sedate game followed in Moscow against relegation-threatened Dinamo, but Nazarov - enjoying a run in the team after Zhamaletdinov dropped out of the pecking order and perhaps ended his top flight career with a nasty injury playing for the under-21s - bundled in the only goal of the game to set up us nicely for the derby game on the final day. Unfortunately we couldn't hold on after taking the lead, and once again Krasnodar got the better of us. We aren't far away from them though - they're becoming a realistic target for us to aim at.

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That's it. 30 games, a whole Premier League season done and dusted, and we've finished in the top half after setting out just to dodge relegation. We did it comfortably in the end - 11 points clear of Amkar in the final play-off spot and 20 of Tambov in 15th - and ended up much closer to he European positions than the bottom of the pile. To finish my debut season in the top flight with a positive goal difference and more wins than losses is no mean feat, and we'll be looking to go even better next time.

Elsewhere, Spartak wrapped up a third title in as many years ahead of CSKA, while at the other end Nalchik endured a torrid year with just two wins all season - neither against us, fortunately. Tambov's wealth couldn't sustain them, while Amkar and Dinamo both survived the play-offs and live to fight another day. We won't be favourites for the drop next season, and that should release a huge amount of pressure.

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Once again we ran with a large-ish squad but a relatively small core to the side - more often than not we ran with Fedorov in goal, solid rock Muravjov and Polyakov flanked by Shengelia and captain Boiangiu at the back, Maksimovs and Kucher behind Zangiev and Rudenko as the midfield four, and star man Kozlov up front with Kamehschikov. There were plenty of others that contributed, and all in all we're well set. 

Not only that, but our youngsters had a truly phenomenal season in their regional league, winning all but one of their matches. That to me suggests that we have a wealth of talent to develop and deploy in the future in addition to the players that we will no doubt be bringing in over the summer. My key targets are another full-back, a defensive midfielder to go into the starting line-up, and a partner for Kozlov - Kamehschikov was something of a disappointment and Zhamaletdinov's injury has all but ended his top level career.

All in all, it's been a great year. Next year needs to be better - there's no room to stand still in the Premier League - but for now we can enjoy this. We've done well, and people are taking notice.
--

Saparow and Kuban had exceeded all expectations, reaching 7th place in their first season back in the top flight after being dismissed by many as relegation candidates. Vadym Kozlov and his goals fired the Krasnodar side into the top half of the table, mixing it well with the bigger sides in the league - getting one over Zenit being a particular highlight - and Bahtiyar's new signings brought real quality to the side.

Again, the Turkmen on the sideline was attracting attention from elsewhere, but Kuban could be confident in keeping hold of their man. For the first time since his days at Balkan, our young hero was heading into a third new season at a club without casting glances elsewhere - Russia had plenty of challenges left for him, and he wasn't about to abandon his charges just yet.

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A long pre-season with eight games thrown in over the course of July, and with the exception of a particularly poor performance against Ukrainian side Illichivets, we've done as expected - a 5-0 thrashing of Iranian giants Esteghlal the highlight before we returned to Krasnodar to take on local sides - and the new signings have gelled nicely. The squad has undergone some significant changes over the summer, and I feel like we're just about ready to cement our position in the Premier League.

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As I mentioned, a lot of business. Once again we managed to make a profit on our summer dealing, sending out a number of youngsters on loan and bringing in several more for the future. Alongside all that, we've brought in several players that are likely to be competing for first team positions - hence the large number of friendly games.

Beginning with the outgoings, Yenisey swooped in to snap up first-choice goalkeeper Fedorov along with back-up left-back Zimin, leaving us needing cover in both positions - especially when Armavir then moved on our other senior keeper Gavrilov later in the window. The other big sale came right as the window closed, and it was not one I wanted to make - Polyakov had impressed both on loan and in his one permanent season here, but when Spurs came calling with a good amount up front and several tempting add-ons, we couldn't stand in his way.

To bolster our ranks, we've replaced the two outgoing keepers with former CSKA man Vasilenko, who represents an upgrade between the sticks. Improving on Zimin at left-back is Spartak alumnus Shapkin, with his former team-mate Remchukov and the hugely professional Shabaev fighting for the start in the centre of defence. Ahead of them in the midfield screen is Beznyak stepping up from the second tier, while Ufa's talented attacking midfield star Nosnikov joins as a key part of our attacking line-up. Up front we've brought in two - young Pavlov on loan from CSKA as backup and Ukrainian Morozov joining countryman Kozlov as a likely starter.

In Polyakov and the two goalkeepers we've lost some talented players, but Remchukov, Nosnikov and Morozov in particular are of a higher standard than we've had access to before, and our reputation is finally beginning to catch up with our league standing. We're looking forward to the season ahead, looking forward to proving that last year was no fluke, and looking forward to setting our sights on city rivals Krasnodar and the European places.

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The season has arrived, and so have we. We opened our campaign away in Moscow with an emphatic win over Lokomotiv, two early goals bolstered by a second-half Kozlov brace to get us up and running in some style. A week later, three of our new signings got on the scoreboard as we dismantled Yenisey - who, remember, took two of our players over the summer - for a second straight win, and we were looking very good.

Rostov were our next opponents and another summer signings, CSKA loanee Pavlov, was the one to get on the board, but this time we were second best over the 90 minutes and it was a fortunate point for us to pick up. We wound the month up away at Dinamo, a drab affair that ended goalless and kept us unbeaten through the opening month of the year.

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The season is, of course, very young, but we're one of half a dozen unbeaten sides after the opening four games, and lie just two points behind early pacesetters CSKA. Our fixtures haven't been the most difficult thus far, but if we can build some momentum then we should have at least half a chance when we take on the likes of CSKA, Spartak and Zenit. We might be in the next tier down, but we've got to aim to top our tier and then break into the elite level. After four games, we're on track.

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A more mixed month this time round. Terek were seen off at home courtesy of another goal from new arrival Nosnikov, but after the subsequent international break we were unable to hold onto the momentum, losing a close game in St Petersburg to a second-half strike that gave Vasilenko with no chance - our first meeting with a top side, and our first defeat of the season.

That was swiftly followed up by a second in the home derby against Krasnodar, but our biggest disappointment came three days later in the cup. While on the one hand we were drawn away in Vladivostok, one of the longest possible trips, but our rotated side failed to live up to expectations and found themselves dumped out at the first hurdle by the second-tier side. Embarrassing is the only word for it.

Fortunately, our final game of the month saw us get back to winning ways, travelling to Ufa and seeing both of our Ukrainian hitmen on the scoresheet to pick up an overdue victory. A 50% record of the month isn't ideal, but it's better than it could have been.

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A quarter of the way through the season, and we're back in the 7th position we finished last year in. We're definitely looking up rather than down - we're level on points with Spartak, which is little short of miraculous - but it's clear that we're just a little short of the very top sides. It's possible we'll be able to recruit to bridge the gap over the winter, but for now we need to cling on to their coattails and see if we can't sneak past one or two of them.

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Just the three games for us this month, our lack of cup activity combined with another international break making October a somewhat abridged affair for us. Not that we're complaining at all - given how many sides these days complain about players playing too much, I'll take an easy schedule whenever we have the chance.

Our trio of matches produced every possible result, unfortunately getting worse as time went on. Our only away day of the month saw us overcome Armavir in an end-to-end affair, the sides trading goals until substitute Pavlov settled things inside the final 10 minutes. We were then held at home by Rubin in a game we should have won, conceding a late penalty after Nikolaev put us in front, and were then taken apart by league leaders CSKA in what was a pretty abject display all round. They've only dropped four points all year, but we have to put up more of a fight. 

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While CSKA may be running away with the competition, we're doing our level best to stay with a group of several teams - everyone from Zenit to Krasnodar - with ambitions of European football. We're ahead of our city rivals for the time being, which must feel good for our fans, but we're also under no illusions as to how difficult it's going to be to stay up here. At the other end of the table, there is no one team cut adrift at this stage - but we shan't be focusing too much on the action down there.

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We've made it to the winter break and the halfway point of the season, and with a single exception away at Spartak we've been playing very well. Amkar are in danger of cutting cut off at the foot of the table, but we put in a thoroughly professional performance to see them off with a goal from each of our Ukrainian forwards. The next time we were in action we needed to come from behind to snatch a 2-2 draw with Krylya - who are having a good season by their standards - but Nikolaev's leveller was no more than we deserved.

Then came another break, and a trip to the Otkritie Arena to take on Spartak. We've not really looked like taking anything from them yet, and this time was no different - the hosts netted early and cruised to the win from then on. December then saw us finish the year strongly, two goals in the final 10 minutes turning a point against Khimki into all three, and then a chilly trip to Siberia resulting in an easy win against a poor Yenisey outfit. We're out of action now for a couple of months, and hopefully we can maintain this form when we pick back up again.

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We're past halfway, and we're looking very good. Four defeats in 16 games, and three of them have been to sides above us - CSKA, Spartak and Zenit - and the fourth was the derby against Krasnodar. That suggests to me that we're accurately placed as the best of the rest, not quite capable of a title challenge - CSKA are dominating the league this season - but genuine contenders for a European berth. If we can chase down just one of the sides above us, we'll guarantee just that.

Elsewhere it's clearly CSKA's title to lose after Spartak's slow start to the season, and the European fight will be between the sides from surprise challengers Dinamo down to Krylya. Amkar look dead and buried at the bottom, Khimki are down there too, and then everybody from Rostov down risks being dragged into the play-off dogfight. Our goals for the rest of the season are twofold - not to drop below our current position, and to push on if at all possible into the top four. Easier said than done, but there's no point settling for less.

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A solid midseason run of friendlies, with opposition ranging from the minnows of Melilla to the giants of Tottenham - the North London side lured here in a Europa League break thanks to a clause in Polyakov's contract. We've scored plenty of goals, barely conceded aside from the game against Spurs, and look good to continue our pre-Christmas form. Job done.

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No transfers in or out of the first team, but the arrival of a very exciting group of academy grads. There is almost boundless potential here - five players rated very highly indeed - but the cream of the crop is without a doubt Vladimir Polyakov. A dual citizen courtesy of his Belgian birthplace, he's the kind of playmaker I can see the Kuban faithful getting very excited about in years to come. He's good enough for the second tier now, and I'd be surprised if he didn't make his debut next season.

He isn't the only bright talent either - Demidov and Frolov have the makings of a long-term centre-back pairing, Tkachev will go far if he gets his head sorted, and Kuznetsov needs to choose a position and go for it. The conveyor belt is producing the goods here in Krasnodar, and these are exciting times indeed.

 

Edited by EvilDave

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Back into action with four March matches, and while we remain unbeaten in the new decade, we also have just the one win to our name. Surprisingly, that victory came against second-place Dinamo, the Muscovities running out of steam in the second half as we hit two in eight minutes to grab the victory. We also earned a point against perennial contenders Zenit, twice going behind to the visitors and twice finding a reply.

However, with our lofty position taken into account, it is hard to see draws with lowly Lokomotiv and midtable Rostov as anything other than missed opportunities. We conceded late to share the points with Loko, and threw away a lead on the road as well - we need to be more ruthless if we want to continue our push up the table.

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The table continues to look good, and if we win our game in hand over Zenit we'll leapfrog them into 5th and potentially 4th. That's likely to be good enough for Europe, and that has to be the aim. If we want to set out sights even higher, Dinamo's second place is still up for grabs - but for now establishing ourselves in the top grouping is enough. For now.

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We're approaching the end of the season now - one month to go after four very contrasting games in April. Looking at the positives first, we registered two huge wins. The first came away at Terek, who must be sick of the sight of us by now, and this one was courtesy of Morozov's incredible four-goal haul, by far his best performance in a Kuban shirt. The second came at home to Ufa, a late flurry adding to the same man's early strike to earn us another win.

Each win was, however, followed by a defeat - the first an agonising, injury-time loss in the derby in which we were so, so close to getting our first point off Krasnodar. The second was away in Kazan, where Rubin hit us twice in the first 15 minutes and we never fully recovered. A disappointing end to the month. 

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We have six games to play - six games to secure a European berth for next season. Unfortunately for one of ourselves, Dinamo, Zenit, Spartak and Krylya, one of us will miss out, and I have no intention of it being us. The most likely outcome is us leaping over Krylya, and indeed we play them in our run-in, but it's all very tight - except at the top, where CSKA have won at a canter. At the bottom, Amkar have stormed back after seeming lost, leaving Khimki the ones in trouble. May promises to be a most exciting month.

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The final month - six games to settle our European fate, or lack thereof. And it got off to the worst possible start, travelling to champions elect CSKA and returning on the end of a comprehensive beating which served only to lower morale and give us one game less to work with. Back home to Armavir we took the lead through Remchukov only to concede within two minutes of scoring, and we then failed to break down the relegation-threatened side, dropping two more crucial points.

We'd had our sights set on the next game for a while - at home to Krylya. For 88 of the 90 minutes it looked like two more points thrown away until loanee Pavlov popped up off the bench to grab the winner, and nine days later in Perm he repeated the trick to hand us back-to-back wins when we needed them most. Midweek at Khimki he started but didn't find the net, instead allowing Rudenko to steal the spotlight with a double. With three wins under our belt, we welcomed Spartak hopeful of taking our first points off them, only to fall far short. But would it be enough?

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Yes, it would. Not only did we jump Krylya, but also Dinamo - the side nearest CSKA all season picking up four points from their last six and missing out on the Champions League. A top four finish represents a best ever for the club, secures us Europa League football, and signals our arrival at the top table of the Russian game. To wind up two points behind Zenit and ahead of Krasnodar represents an excellent year, and if there were ever any doubts as to the club's potential, we have erased them.

Around the league, CSKA ended Spartak's three-year reign at the top convincingly, with the deposed champions recovering to second place. Our city rivals miss out on Europe, while at the bottom it's Khimki and Armavir who drop to the FNL, with Rostov and Amkar left to tackle the play-offs. Lokomotiv again end up in the wrong half of the table and look troubled, while Krylya - despite their late-season slump - are the other overachievers. 

For next season, we go again - looking to improve further, and perhaps even dare to dream of a title challenge. We'll see what the summer holds.

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The men who made it happen. We featured a slightly larger squad this time round, having added numbers in the summer, but once again there are some obvious key performers. Muravjov was excellent at the heart of our defence, repelling wave after wave of attacks against all but the strongest sides. Nosnikov was ever-present after his free transfer in the summer, and proved a top acquisition with his creativity and goal threat. Beyond him, Morozov shone up front, crucially so as Kozlov seemed to have an off year, and if we can get both of them firing we'll be a real threat next year.

Of course, next year poses a number of questions. Can we repeat the trick? Can we ever get a result against Krasnodar, Spartak or CSKA? How will Europe affect our squad? I have no idea, but I do know we'll be recruiting with a view to success on multiple fronts. That has to be the goal, and it's what I'll be working towards.
--

Once again, Bahtiyar exceeded expectations. With the pressure on during a crucial run-in, Kuban pulled out all the stops to finish inside the top four, qualifying for the Europa League in the process. There were undoubtedly gaps in the side - and our young hero would look to address them in the summer - but it was undoubtedly a great achievement.

Around Russia and elsewhere, Saparow was garnering yet more attention. The young Turkmen had succeeded in taking a side from the second tier into Europe, and the question on everybody's lips was how far his next step would take him. Was it really conceivable that Kuban could become champions of their nation? Would he have the chance to make it happen?

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The summer - and the World Cup, which saw early exits for Belgium and Germany before The Netherlands' victory - is over at last, after a full eight friendly games against opposition of varying quality. We took on and beat four sides from Bulgaria, Austria, Romania and the Czech Republic - good preparation for our upcoming Europa League campaign - as well as smashing huge numbers of goals past local sides and our own reserves. We're as ready as we're going to be for the season ahead, and this will be the season which determines whether we can break into the very top group of Russian clubs, or whether we're forced to settle for European qualification again.

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There have been changes to the squad, although fewer of them than in previous years. We've spent more than we've brought in for the first time since my arrival, but it isn't necessarily the biggest fees that will make the biggest differences. We've also moved on a lot of players who haven't quite made it at the top level, and we'll start with them.

The biggest fee we received was for Kukin, who only arrived last season but never really gelled and was after first-team football we couldn't promise. Naumov was a long-standing backup who was easily replaced, while up front, both Zhamaletdinov - a shadow of his former self after the injury - and the disappointing Kamehschikov both depart. Kozlov and Morozov are suitably established as our front two, and the two veterans simply weren't up to scratch.

Coming in, we've done most of our strengthening in the defensive half of the field. Yarkin and Gorbunov are only here temporarily, but will give us excellent cover on the flanks, while also arriving are Russo-Portuguese former loanee Mendes and free signing Smirnov to bolster the midfield screen. The days of major squad overhauls are behind us now - this is about the marginal gains, pushing on and improving what we have, and growing as a squad to a position from which we can make a real tilt at the title. I'm convinced we can do that - the media is sceptical, the fans are nervous about Europe - and all that we can do now is wait and see.

 

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59 minutes ago, tyler16 said:

Loving this thread.

Interested to see how you fare this season with a more established squad.

Thanks Tyler, glad to have you following along. Squad-wise, we've hit a point where improving is difficult without buying in too many foreigners (you'll notice I haven't signed a single non-USSR player yet...), as the Russians who would improve us are at the clubs we're competing with. Still, we'll make a go of it!

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And we're off, eight games in a manic August that saw us both start very strongly in the league and make good progress on the European stage. Beginning at home, our league campaign got off to a flyer with a demolition of Arsenal - the team I turned down to join Kuban and who were promoted last season - before we edged past Ufa in Bashkortostan. A brace from striker Pavlov, former CSKA loanee having made a permanent switch, saw us win a tough game at home to Rubin, and then we travelled to Perm and blew Amkar away, a hat-trick from Rudenko the highlight of a 6-2 thrashing.

In the Europa League, a comfortable 3-1 win away in Bratislava did the damage against Slovan, with a goalless home draw achieved by a second-string side and moving us into then play-off. The draw pitted us against Turkish giants Galatasaray and even their mind wasn't mind up at that stage, a 2-2 draw in the home leg had most people writing us out of Europe for the year. However, they had reckoned without a certain Olexandr Morozov, who scored an incredible four times in the return fixture, his three goals in the final 10 minutes earning us passage to the group stage and leaving us in need of a swift exit from Istanbul. A glorious evening of football.

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As fourth seeds, we were the second-to-last team to be drawn into the Europa groups, but we can have no complaints with the draw. There may be slightly easier groups out there, but while Schalke will be firm favourites to make it through, ourselves, Rapid and Young Boys will all be reasonably confident about our chances of making it to the knockout stages. We shouldn't be outclassed at any rate, and quite frankly we've got nothing to lose - beating Galatasaray has already exceeded our expectations.

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The early table is largely meaningless, but with two big wins and two hard-fought ones, we sit atop the early pile on alphabetical order from Spartak with a perfect record. The top four at this stage are the same four I expect to be there at the end of the season, and it's now on us to see if we genuinely have the ability, consistency and fortune to mount a real title challenge. After three years building the club, it now seems a genuine possibility - we've got to make it happen now, or others may catch up.

Edited by EvilDave

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A mixed month. One the one hand, the cup competitions continued to treat us well. Away in Vienna we picked up a valuable Europa League point to get our first of the group at the first attempt, and in many ways were unlucky not to win. In the domestic cup, we put aside last year's embarrassment in Vladivostok to romp home at Tyumen, ensuring at least some sort of progress.

In the league, things were more mixed. A first ever point against Spartak - away from home to boot - was tempered by the fact that we failed to find the net at home to Yenisey. A first win for me in the derby - and at the home of our city rivals with a goal scored by forgotten man Semin - was somewhat frustrating given that the week before we had lost to a middle-of-the-road Lokomotiv side at home. We've broken through a couple of psychological barriers, but we have to be more consistent if we're to challenge for the title. 

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After eight games, Zenit have supplanted us as league leaders but the top five is incredibly tight, Rostov the surprise entrants into the leading quintet. It's the leaders who we have in our very next game, and so the tests are coming thick and fast - along with the Europa League interest, there'll be plenty to examine our squad over the year to come.

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To say we have taken well to European football would be something of an understatement. To say Morozov in particular has found his form in the Europa League would be a huge one. Not content with his four-goal haul in Istanbul to bring us to the group stages, our Ukrainian striker repeated the trick for the visit of Schalke, his haul sending the Germans home pointless after a breathless 5-4 win. Following that two weeks later with 2-0 win in Switzerland puts us firmly in control of the group at halfway - we're looking very good for progression.

At home, it's been more frustrating. A point against unbeaten league leaders Zenit at home was welcome but a missed opportunity, Kozlov missing a penalty for the victory in the second half. Then we failed to turn up for the first half in Moscow, going 3-0 down before our forwards combined for an epic comeback - had we played the full 90 minutes, we would have emerged victorious. We were then lethargic in Samara, although some of that may have been due to our European adventures, before another draw ended with us departing the cup on penalties - a less than stellar set of games.

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The result of all that is that, while we are still just two points off the summit, we find ourselves outside of the top four. Zenit's point against us was their only one of the month so they slide down to be leapfrogged by Terek, while Rostov remain spoilers in the usual Muscovite pack. The table is getting condensed - the biggest gap anywhere in the league is five points from 15th to 16th - and if we're to put a challenge together we need to start winning again. One victory from October would have us top of the pile, and those are the sort of margins we're working in.

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Just the four games in November, and unfortunately, more mediocrity. An end-to-end game against Young Boys saw us pick up another point to move closer to qualification in the Europa, before a routine win against Anzhi back home - the first in what seems like an age. However, Terek held firm to beat us in Chechnya, and then Gladyshev's early goal was cancelled out by the Austrians in our penultimate group game. No consistency, and it's starting to become a concern.

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Although we have a game in hand, we remain outside the top four, and with Spartak beginning to look ominous we're in danger of being left behind unless we can find some form. Early challengers Rostov have fallen off the pace, but Terek are continuing their surge - we need to follow them up the table, or risk a season of stagnation. It'd still be stagnation in the European places, but standing still is not on my agenda.

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A long 2030 is finally over, and frankly we need the break at this point. A narrow defeat to CSKA - despite the best efforts of their former forward Pavlov - was followed up with us needing to scramble a late leveller in Rostov, and then we needed another late goal to get the better of rock-bottom Arsenal. All in all, we're starting to struggle, and I wonder whether a break might do us the world of good.

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In Europe, a rapid-fire double from Kozlov got us the point we needed against Schalke to go into the last 32. In the end we would have qualified even with a loss given the result in Bern, but even so to go through unbeaten is a great achievement. Schalke have been very poor, but heading into the knockouts is further than anyone expected before the season began. We'll face Marseille in the last 32 and will be heavy underdogs - but there's nothing new there.

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The league table doesn't look great. CSKA and Spartak have resumed their title battle and are leaving the rest of us behind, while we find ourselves locked together with three other sides on 27 points and not all that far ahead of the chasing pack. Finishing in the top four last season may have been one year too early - it's beginning to look like that's all we can hope for again - and the idea of staying put is frustrating. Incomings are likely to be few and far between, purely because the quality and availability we need isn't out there, and so I'm now left with questions as to what our next step has to be. If we can't improve our consistency, we're going to get left behind by other sides, and there has to be a solution. At the moment, I don't know what that is, but I know it's out there.

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The long winter break is over, and we've done well in our six tune-up fixtures. Neither of our games in Vladikavkaz were particularly convincing, but after good wins against Rosenborg and Bremen we should be ready for the Europa League to resume. 

Frustratingly however, we've been unable to add to the squad. Shortly after we broke up for the winter, rumours of a takeover began to swirl - enforcing a transfer embargo on the club - and they haven't been sorted until very recently, the new man investing in the club but making some uncomfortable demands regarding big name players. I don't know much about Huseynov, but he doesn't seem to understand our position here - 'high profile' names are ready and willing to come to Kuban, because we aren't in Moscow, can't pay the ways of CSKA/Spartak/Zenit, and are only just beginning to establish ourselves as a top side. To say I'm concerned would not be inaccurate.

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What I am not concerned about is the club's academy, which once again has delivered a group of high-potential players in its last cohort. We seem to be particularly proficient at churning out attacking talent, with three of the top five playing in the forward half of the field, but I'm sure the balance will adjust over time. The undoubted star of the show is young winger Putilin, and while my system doesn't utilise wide men other than at the back, with his professional attitude and promising skillset, I can see him playing a key role behind the strikers in years to come.

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Starting with the Europa League - we're out of it. We were heavy underdogs against Marseille, but given that that was also the case against Galatasaray and Schalke, we were not overly worried. Nor were we outplayed, going down by a single goal in France and then being hit by a late counter at home when pushing for the equaliser. It's a shame to go out, but we've had an excellent first campaign and can be rightly proud of getting this far.

In the league, a lethargic performance in Kazan had me wondering whether 2031 would simply be an extension of the second half of last year, but after that 1-1 draw we exploded into life. A superb first-half performance against Ufa had us 3-0 up at the break and easing to the win, while a late show against Amkar earned us three further points. We won by the same 2-0 scoreline away in Krasnoyarsk, and having struggled for form before the winter break, we seem to have found it again very quickly - a very positive sign indeed.

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The table looks an awful lot better than it did at the end of December. With 10 games to go we're back in the top four, jumping Terek and Zenit to sit as closest challengers to the Muscovite titans - our goal difference matching that of the league leaders. We still have to play every other member of the top six - matches that will go a long way to defining our season - but after such a good run in March we will at least go into the last two months confident of our chances. We're only five points back - is the title a real possibility? If we're going to do it, it might just have to be this year.

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We are firmly in the business end of the season now, and given our fixtures for April it would almost certainly make or break our season. The new owner was already on my back about the lack of big signings in the transfer window - the same transfer window his takeover saw us under embargo for - and so for the first time since arriving at Kuban, I felt the pressure.

The team did too in the first game, two Pavlov goals putting us in cruise control against Loko before a second half penalty had them right back in it. Thankfully we held on, and followed up the victory with one of our finest hours, an almost easy win over Spartak - my first against them - courtesy of two Morozov strikes and a sublime free-kick from Kozacuks. Coupled with a 3-0 romp away in St Petersburg at the end of the month, we could have been talking about a live title challenge - however, slumping to a 2-0 derby defeat means we still have a lot of work to do to achieve that. Still, we're taking on the big teams and winning. 

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CSKA matched our points haul for the month, meaning we stay five points away from the summit with six games to play in May. Spartak are just a point away in the second Champions League berth, while Krasnodar are now our nearest challengers for the bronze medal position after overcoming us in the derby. Elsewhere in the league, Arsenal are as good as gone with Amkar also struggling, and it could well be a play-off spot for Lokomotiv, which would be a poor result for what was once a very strong outfit. We won't have to worry about that any more though.
--

Bahtiyar's Kuban were continuing to punch above what many assumed was their weight, brushing off their Europa League disappointment to land big blows against some of Russia's top sides. The title challenge our Turkmen hero has hoped for was just about surviving, his side sitting five points off the top with six games to play, and if it came off, it would be one of the great sporting stories.

But behind the scenes, Saparow was less than 100% happy for the first time in a long while. New owner Husyenov was demanding in his drive for big name players, and that rankled with a man accustomed to building teams his own way. He hadn't thought about leaving Kuban since taking over, despite interest from elsewhere - was this now the time to consider a move? Would he even have a choice in the matter?

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It all came down to this. One month, six matches, five points to claw back if we were to finish as unlikely champions, but at risk  of slipping out of the European places if things went badly. Four of the six would be at home, potentially playing into our hands, but we could be sure of nothing.

We started our run-in against a Krylya side fighting relegation, and we did just enough, Morozov sealing the win after Gorbunov's early fluke goal was immediately cancelled out by the visitors. By contrast, a 3-2 win over Dinamo in our next outing was more comfortable than the scoreline suggests, the Muscovites striking twice in stoppage time for a consolation brace.

The biggest game of all would come on the road however, and up against a CSKA side on the hunt for back-to-back titles, we came up well short. An early goal had us on the back foot from the off, an own goal from Yarkin midway through the first half had us up against it, and a late third killed off any lingering hopes we had. To our credit, we bounced back well with a tough win over Terek, but had the damage already been done?

Two games to go, and the first was in Makhachkala, where we looked to have thrown away a two-goal lead in a crazy 10-minute spell. However, not content to be left wondering, that man Morozov stepped up again, stealing victory with a long-range effort as late as the 87th minute. That set up a home finale against Rostov, and we closed on a high with our best performance of the month, denying the visitors a single shot on target in a comfortable 3-0 win. Five wins from six looked to be a good result from the month, even if the loss was at the hands of one of our rivals, but where did it leave us?

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Agonisingly, in third place. A win in the CSKA game would have earned us Champions League football next season, but Spartak ended their campaign with six straight wins to win back their title, and so anything we did would have failed to make a difference. We pushed them hard, finished in a new record position for Kuban, cemented our place in the Russian elite, but what we are left with? Bronze medals, more Europa League football, and a nagging feeling that, had we shown even a hint of consistency through the late autumn, we would have been lifting the trophy instead.

Around the league, a miserable campaign for Arsenal ended with two wins and relegation at the first time of asking, and they will be joined in the second tier by Amkar after they failed to reel in Krylya. A strong year for Terek sees them settle for 6th behind an increasingly-established top five, while Lokomotiv continue to struggle in the lower reaches of midtable. We're now included in the elite group, but need a little bit more if we're to clear the final hurdle.

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The men that came so close, and yet wound up so far away. After a fairly indifferent loan spell last season, Pavlov proved his worth with more than 20 goals in his first season as Kuban player, one more than strike partner Morozov. Behind him, Rudenko starred yet again, hitting double figures for both goals and assists, while the breakout star of the year was young Latvian Kozacuks, the youngster earning a first team berth and impressing throughout the campaign. There's been clear improvement across the squad - former key players such as Kozlov and Maksimovs are now bit-part men in the side - but with the new man in charge demanding high profile signings, I could be forced into changing the balance once again.

That is, of course, if I'm still here. It's been four excellent season in Krasnodar, but the new owner does not fill me with confidence - particularly with a dual emphasis on youth, which I'm happy with, but also the big names. If I'm not given the freedom to build the side - something I think he'd have to admit I'm succeeding at - then there are opportunities out there which are beginning to look interesting. It would be a shame to move on without taking Kuban to the very top, but I will not be dictated to. If I'm here next season, we go for the title. If not, who knows what's next?
--

In the end, Kuban came up just short, Spartak holding their nerve down the home straight to clinch the title and leaving Saparow's side to pick up their bronze medals. It is undoubtedly a superb achievement for the unfancied Krasnodar outfit, but leaves a tinge of disappointment for our young hero.

With the season done and dusted, Bahtiyar and many of his players will no doubt be in demand, and for the first time in almost half a decade, our managerial star could be about to move. The new Azeri chairman risks upsetting his man by meddling in the market, and we've already seen at Dila that our Turkmen on the sidelines is not prepared to sit back and let interference slide. After bringing a promising side so close to the summit, the choice for Saparow is now a simple one, but one fraught with emotion: to stay, attempting to placate the owner and pushing back the two Moscow clubs to the top of the Premier League, or to leave, looking for opportunities elsewhere, assuming they are available. By no means an easy call to make...

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At the Turkmenbashi Ruhy mausoleum, the falling rain had little effect on the mourners. Days before, it was announced by the government that Turkmen leader Berdimuhhamedow, who had not been seen in public for several months, had passed away. No details were given, but expatriate news outlets reported that his death was caused by sudden heart failure, a symptom of the lavish lifestyle the 72-year-old dictator had led at the expense of an impoverished nation. Even so, thousands lined the streets to pay their respects - although all knew that there was the possibility of severe repercussions if they failed to show sufficient grief. Uncertainty filled the air, the future entirely unknown, and yet still tears mingled with precipitation.

One of those on the route to the mausoleum was a certain Bahtiyar Saparow. Upon hearing the news, he too knew that attendance was mandatory - nor was he alone, as every remotely well-known Turkmen personality was picked up by the state TV cameras. The death of a man he had known more closely than many, and yet in an odd and distant way - ill-disguised phonecalls, unsolicited paternal advice, a sense of duty to a nation he barely knew - left him uncertain as to the future of his father's homeland. For him personally, it would mean no odd political ramblings, no midnight calls signalled by blasts of the national anthem, no expectation that he would make his country proud. But for the country?

Many hoped, although not yet in public, that Berdimuhhamedow's passing would usher in a new era of prosperity for the Turkmen nation, a nation which was, after all, one of the world's leading producers of natural gas. There were secret talks of democratisation after several decades of dictatorial rule, of parliament functioning as a genuine representation of the people, of the country's borders being opened to the wider world. On the other hand, in the corridors of power in Asgabat, there had already been political jostling, would-be successors burnishing their leadership credentials and editing their way into the personality cult surrounded their deceased figurehead. The future would be very different, but remained a haze of hopes, dreams and ideas.

As the almost endless ceremony of speeches, readings, tributes and choreographed grief finally drew to a close, Saparow felt his phone begin to vibrate in his pocket. Now was not the time to be taking a call - not in view of the TV cameras, which would almost certainly frame his conversation as disrespectful and cause him to be blacklisted in Turkmenistan. As he weaved his way through the crowd towards a quieter side-street, the buzzing began afresh. This time, out of sight of recording equipment, he felt able to answer. On doing so, an unfamiliar voice spoke to him:

"Bahtiyar, sorry to disturb you at such a time - I see online that you're at the funeral. I appreciate it isn't convenient, but there's a flight out of Asgabat tonight just after 9pm, and a ticket in your name waiting at the Aeroflot desk. We'd like to talk to you tomorrow morning. Goodbye."

That was quite the development.

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As well as showing you what Saparow might be thinking, this post signals the end of any messing around I may or may not have been doing with the Turkmen president. I had an idea that I couldn't possibly execute, and so this is my attempt at worming out of it. Expect more conventional storytelling from this point on!

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17 hours ago, tyler16 said:

Oh wow, that's a massive opening. Would personally have a hard time turning it down.

Agreed - it's a shame it's come before Bahtiyar has conquered Russia, but at the same I think in reality it'd be almost impossible for a manager in his position to say no...

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The interview went well despite the suddenness of the circumstances, and it was only a matter of time before the offer arrived. If the offer had come a year ago, I wouldn't have been nearly as tempted, but with Huseynov insisting on 'high-profile' signings at Kuban, the decision to leave for what is unarguably a much bigger club was an easier one. The fans aren't convinced - they don't see the Asian Champions League, dominance of Central Asia or the establishment of Kuban as sufficient proof of my credentials, citing a lack of 'top level' titles, but I'll prove them wrong. 

In general terms, this is by far the biggest club of my career, the culmination of more than a decade of managerial success. Shakhtar, along with the Moscow giants I've been duelling with in Krasnodar, are one of the biggest clubs in the post-Soviet space, one of just three sides from the former USSR (along with CSKA and Zenit) to have a European title to their name, and we have the reputation and facilities to attract the world's best to Donetsk. Despite being devastated in the Russian intervention of 2014-22, the city has been rebuilt into one of Ukraine's finest, and the Donbas-Arena is second only to the national stadium in Kyiv. 

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The last point on the graph is the reason I'm here. Shakhtar won no fewer than 14 consecutive titles before last season, when they were inexplicably left behind by not just their historic rivals Dynamo Kyiv, but Dynamo's cross-city underdogs Obolon-Brewer. Unable to keep up with the two capital sides, Shakhtar wound up 3rd, watching as the two Kyiv clubs contested a one-off play-off match for the title, Obolon crowning a superb season with an historic first title win. That signalled the end for club legend Vasyl Sachko, who has since taken the reins at Fenerbahce, and here I am in his place.

In simple terms, the expectations are straightforward - win the title back. Realistically, Shakhtar should be looking beyond Ukraine and seeking to push on in the Champions League, but this season the club will be forced to watch on as Europe's elite clubs do battle, settling instead for the Europa League. To add insult to injury, we will play from the very first round of qualifying - before I signed up, they had already beaten Santa Coloma of Andorra 3-0 in the away leg. My hope is that last season was a blip rather than the start of a decline, but I'm confident we can retake our rightful place at the top of the domestic game.

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The squad is large and, unlike the dominant sides of the 2010s and 20s, composed largely of homegrown players rather than Brazilian imports. The loss of the title last year has given long-term owner Akhmetov the chance to hit the reset button on the club's transfer policy, and with one of the nation's finest academy setups, building a team based on our own youth makes sense. 

The fans might not like it, but having discussed it with the owner, my plan is to turn Shakhtar into a strictly Ukrainian outfit over the course of my contract. That will mean the sales of some popular men - captain Oviedo, midfield star Marques, centre-back rocks Pupovac and Onana, and Czech boy wonder Sova. It will also mean a significant outlay over the next couple of seasons as I aim to make Donetsk the basis of the Ukrainian national side. It's an ambitious project, and if it backfires I will be out of a job in no time at all, but there's a solid base of talent here and we have the budget to snap up what's elsewhere.

My aims for this season? Begin the nationalisation project, win the title back, and try to run deep in the Europa League. The latter will depend entirely on the draw, but the knockouts are a bare minimum, while the first should not be incompatible with the second. This is not a project I expected to be taking on, a club bigger than anything I've taken over before, and the expectations are higher. However, I'm convinced I can live up to them.
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Shakhtar Donetsk. Arguably the biggest club in Eastern EuropeBahtiyar had truly made it as a football manager. It was a wrench to leave Kuban behind, difficult to leave his Krasnodar home and the club he had built for second tier also-rans to Russian title contenders, but a club of this size did not come calling every day. Here, success was not just hoped for but demanded - a second league title slipping through their grasp was simply unthinkable, and our young hero simply had to deliver.

But Saparow's past successes had given him enough confidence to know that he was the right man for the job - so much so that he was aiming not just to put Shakhtar back on their perch, but also to make them a 'people's team' formed entirely on Ukrainian players, stealing the mantle of long-term rivals Dynamo Kyiv. It was ambitious, it was brazen, and it would not happen overnight, but our talented Turkmen was convinced he could make it work. On that basis, his time in the Donbass would be either a hugely interesting or very short chapter in his career.

Edited by EvilDave

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As previously mentioned, I took over after the first leg of the Santa Coloma tie - and without wishing to disparage the work of the caretaker appointment, I can't help but feel like 3-0 was a poor result given that we hit double figures at home. The rest of our friendlies have resulted in similarly one-sided outcomes against local Donetsk sides as the players got used to my tactical setup, while our European qualifiers continued with a straightforward 6-0 aggregate over Azerbaijani outfit Qabala.

Sheriff Tiraspol of Moldova await in the next round - which should be another simple tie - and the final week of July sees the first game of the league campaign. We've got goals aplenty in the side, our defence is yet to be tested, but I'm feeling confident. We're Shakhtar Donetsk, and we have no reason to feel anything other.

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We've spent money, we've sold players, and we've royally upset some of the fanbase in the process. Selling off club captain Oviedo to England was unforgiveable to many, let alone moving on centre-back pairing Pupovac and Onana just 24 hours apart - the pair heading to Italy and Portugal respectively. Speaking of the Iberian nation, midfielder Rodrigo Marques took the money in an £8m move to the Gulf, while backup keeper Masek joined his former skipper in England. There are a few non-Ukrainians still remaining in the side - goalkeeper Zoltan Biro, wonderkid Pavel Sova, and Serbain full-back Jovan Lekic - who we have been surprisingly unable to move on either permanently or on loans, so they'll stay around for the time being. This is a long-term project, so our inability to sell everyone at the first time of asking is no great concern.

Using those funds plus the significant backing handed to me by owner Akhmetov, we've brought in some of the best Ukrainian footballers not already here in Donetsk. The pick of the signings is probably Ostapenko from the newly-crowned champions to add steel and creativity in the screen along with reserve choice Kozlov, while we've also bolstered our defence in a big way - Zhilkin, Funderat and Nagornyak will all feature regularly, with young Osadchyi and Solyanyk deals for the future. In the attacking third, Karpenko has been brought back from Poland to bolster our options along with backup Kovalenko.

We've had to overpay for pretty much every one of our signings - domestic clubs are not prepared to sell their best assets without a little persuasion - but money is not an issue for Mr Akhmetov, and I'm convinced they'll prove their worth. We open the league season against Karpaty Lviv in just a few days, and I'm expecting big things. Everyone at the club is expecting big things, and they've every reason for their demands.

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The season is well and truly underway, with a couple of games in the final week of July before playing twice a week throughout August. While there's plenty to discuss, the headlines news is that we're looking very good.

In Europe, a lacklustre performance in Moldova left us needing to do a bit of work back in Donetsk, where a goal after 30 seconds set us up for a comfortable win. That set up a play-off tie with Romanian side Viitorul, which we eased through with a 2-1 away win and then a four-goal cruise at home. We're into the group stage - the bare minimum for the season - and while we've yet to prove ourselves against top level opposition, we've shown we can compete at this level.

At home in the league, we got underway with a 5-1 hammering of Karpaty, leading 3-0 at the break and hitting a couple more late on to ice the cake. We were poor in Poltava, requiring a late leveller from Palamarchuk to get a point, but from then on we've been excellent. A hat-trick from the same man in the last half hour was the highlight of a 5-2 thrashing of Illichivets, and then summer signing Ostapenko made the difference against the reigning champions with a superb free-kick to down his old club. Zorya were then seen off with four goals in 13 minutes, and then in the big one we travelled to Kyiv and got the better of Dynamo in the only 'derby' that matters. Consider a marker well and truly laid down.

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In the Europa, we've drawn a tough group that should be manageable. Bilbao are a good side but by no means the mos difficult top seed we could have drawn, while both Panathanaikos and Trabzonspor are good enough to pose us problems but not good enough to beat us at home. A team of our stature should be making it to the last 32 at this stage, and once we get there we'll see where the draw takes us.

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An early league table is usually useless, but after six games we have already opened up a five-point lead over our nearest challengers. Illichivets are unlikely to stay in the runners-up spot all season, so with six points separating us from Dynamo and eight from champions Obolon we're in an excellent position both in terms of points and performance. The Ukrainian league has everyone playing home and away for 22 games, before splitting in half for the top and bottom sixes to go home and away again - four games against the elite sides. That means nothing will be decided for a while, but if we can open up a gap we'll be in an excellent place to take the title back. 

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