You’d be forgiven for thinking Russian football is all Hulk, Axel Witsel and financially-motivated dressing room mutiny at the moment. Amidst all the fuss, it may well have escaped your notice that Anzhi Makhachkala hit the top of the Russian Premier League this weekend. That the big-spending Dagestan club have finally hit the summit is not too much of a shock, but who expected them to do it so stealthily?
Head coach Guus Hiddink’s Chelsea connection is still working its mojo, after Dan Petrescu’s Dynamo Moscow gave the Dutchman’s side the chance to snatch top spot by surprisingly winning at CSKA in the capital derby. Anzhi fulfilled their own part of the bargain later by beating Volga Novgorod 2-1. The winner was scored by Lacina Traoré, the 6ft 8in Ivorian centre-forward once tracked by Arsene Wenger while at CFR Cluj. Traoré now has five league goals for the season – just one less than his illustrious colleague and strike partner Samuel Eto’o.
That’s right, Samuel Eto’o. Confirmation that the iconic Cameroonian leads the line for Anzhi still needs a double-take, 13 months after the generous funding of club owner and local billionaire Suleyman Kerimov made him the highest-paid player in the world with a mind-blowing €20m (£16m) per year contract.
Eto’o and Roberto Carlos – now retired and working as the club’s sporting director – were the flagships that beckoned the deluge, with Christopher Samba and Lassana Diarra among the bigger names to follow. Anzhi’s players lead an unusual professional life, living and training in Moscow for safety reasons and making the 1,000-mile flight south to Makhachkala’s modest, 15,000-capacity Dynamo Stadium for home games.
The security situation prevents Anzhi from hosting European games in Makhachkala and Thursday’s Europa League tie against Young Boys will take place at Moscow’s Lokomotiv Stadium. English fans will soon have a chance to see how Hiddink’s project is coming along, with Anzhi visiting Liverpool in the Europa League on October 25th.
It’ll also be the first professional return of ‘Lucky Guus’ to these shores since the rattling triumph of his short spell at Chelsea in 2009. His early weeks with Anzhi are going some way to smoothing the dent his reputation took from a poor spell in charge of Turkey, when he was criticised for doing his job by correspondence and knowing relatively little about domestic players and competition.
Anzhi’s rather insular situation is the exact opposite of that. Hiddink is already au fait with the Russian football landscape, of course, following the rather more successful fist he made of his previous international post, coaching Russia. Whereas Eto’o and Traoré may grab the imagination internationally, Hiddink is pleased to have young Russian talent like midfielder Oleg Shatov and goalkeeper Evgeny Pomazan, as well as less heralded imports such as Mbark Boussoufa and Jucilei, at his disposal.
Add to this the furore created by Zenit’s own juicy wage deals for Hulk and Witsel, with the ensuing unrest destabilising the champions, and things are looking bright for Anzhi. Even a failed Anzhi purchase came up trumps at the weekend, with now-Dynamo winger Balázs Dzsudzsák doing his former employers a favour opening the scoring in the derby. Lavish Russian spending is still working out fine for Anzhi - even when it’s not their own.