Andy Potts

Russia’s pair of Champions League hopefuls couldn’t find themselves in more varied positions off the field.

While debutants Rubin Kazan seemingly sail serenely towards a second successive title with a settled squad and mounting excitement over the prospect of hosting Barcelona, Internazionale and Dynamo Kyiv, at CSKA Moscow it’s a different story.

The army club, who became Russia’s first-ever European trophy winners when they won the 2005 UEFA Cup, had high hopes of a Champions League breakthrough this season. Yet indifferent league form – at least by the high standards expected at the Luzhniki – and murmurs of dressing room dissent, exacerbated by the departure of key players Yuri Zhirkov and Vagner Love, saw coach Zico kicked out before his first season had even reached the sharp end.

In his place comes ex-Sevilla, Spurs and Real Madrid boss Juande Ramos, toting a big reputation in Europe and a silverware-studded CV.

And immediately he brings questions: what does he know about Russian football? Will be the next Dick Advocaat, or the latest Michael Laudrup? Can he mould a talented but incoherent squad into a force capable of sinking the likes of Besiktas and Wolfsburg?

Stalwart defenders of Russian coaches for Russian clubs – with former CSKA chief Valery Gazzayev prominent among them – argue that Advocaat’s success at Zenit was the exception rather than the rule. In addition to Zico’s travails and Laudrup’s unhappy spell at Spartak, they point to Dimitar Dimitrov’s failure at Amkar Perm this season as evidence that non-Russians just don’t get it.

But where else could CSKA look? The ‘next big thing’ in Russian coaching, Krylya Sovietov’s Leonid Slutsky has seen his stock falling faster than the global economy this season. Not only have results been poor, with a Europa League defeat to St Pat’s Athletic representing the nadir, his side have also been accused of ‘throwing’ their game at Terek Grozny.

The ‘last big thing’, Rashid Rakhimov, performed wonders at Amkar only to go off the rails at Lokomotiv Moscow, who sacked him earlier this season. While Ramos was grabbing a 3-0 win over Slutsky’s Krylya, Rakhimov was back in charge of the Perm side and pulling off a shock 2-0 win at FK Moscow.

Dynamo Moscow’s Andrei Kovelev, a young Russian coach with CSKA connections from his playing days, might fit the bill – and might relish the chance to work with a better-supported team. However, having just signed an extended contract at Dynamo he would have been expensive to lure across town, while Valery Karpin’s role as chairman/coach makes him untouchable at Spartak.

So Ramos it is – and a convincing 3-0 win in his first game suggests he has galvanised a squad which appeared to be trading on reputations rather than performances.

Now the hard work really starts in the Champions League, where the meeting with Wolfsburg will have an extra edge in the build-up to the decisive Russia-Germany World Cup qualifier next month, and give a clearer impression of what CSKA can do in Europe.

The manager CSKA might have liked, of course, is Rubin’s Gurban Berdyev. If last season’s fairytale title triumph was greeted with some cynicism, their commanding form this time out has earned genuine respect.

Last season’s Dad’s Army of Savo Milosevic and Sergei Rebrov have moved on, but influential midfielder Sergei Semak still makes things tick, while a rejuvenated Alejandro Dominguez has returned from Zenit and started showing his best form again. The Argentinian can infuriate – his habit of falling over fresh air makes Eduardo look positively Corinthian – but his record of 13 in 17 league games tells its own story.

Their home stadium, overlooked by the 1,000-year-old walls of the Tatar capital’s Kremlin, could become the textbook definition of ‘never an easy place to go’, and their slick counter-attacking style would have made them a threat in any group.

However, for all the glamour of welcoming Mourinho and Messi to the tournament’s easternmost outpost, the draw could hardly have been tougher for them. Two of Europe’s thoroughbreds, and a Dynamo Kyiv side coached by old foe Gazzayev, mean the element of surprise may not be the decisive weapon it could have been against, say, Rangers, Sevilla or Stuttgart.

Even if a top-two finish is beyond them, expect a surprise somewhere along the line from this team. After fearlessly scattering the big names of the Russian league in their wake, these proud dark horses are relishing their bow on Europe’s biggest stage.

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