Before a ball was kicked, nobody would have given serious consideration to the prospect of Spartak Nalchik chasing down top honours in 2010.

Although the men from the slopes of Mount Elbrus had already established themselves as a solid top-flight outfit, there was little to suggest that the team nurtured by ex-player Yury Kranozhan was ready to ascend to the summit.

Yet, at the time of writing, seven games in, unbeaten, they lead the field and hopes in Karbadino-Balkaria are rising to match Europe’s highest peak which dominates the city.

A recent 0-0 draw at Spartak Moscow confirmed them as serious title contenders. It wasn’t simply the result – they’d already bagged a 1-1 draw away to defending champions Rubin Kazan this season.

Instead it was the confident way they came to Moscow, set up with two forwards rather than trying to swamp midfield, which caught the eye.

And even after losing Roman Kantsedalan to a rather harsh red card after 25 minutes they were comfortably able to keep their more illustrious rivals at bay – and might even have grabbed a winner had Georgi Siradze’s close-range effort not been bundled off the line by Sabitov.

Sure, Spartak Moscow rattled the bar – with Zhano probably feeling he should have scored after Ivan Saenko’s fierce drive was beaten away by Finnish keeper Otto Freidriksson – but it was a huge contrast from last year’s Luzhniki encounter.

On that occasion a routine home win was enlivened only by prolonged bleating from the visitors over an abusive word "comprising seven Cyrillic letters" hoisted in the home end.

The offending word, "Ovtseyovy", implies an over fondness for the local livestock and left the president of Nalchik’s native republic fuming that not only the team, but the entire population of Karbadino-Balkaria had been mortally insulted. A sheepish Spartak paid a fine, and Nalchik disappeared from public view once again.

Their next emergence into the headlines came in January when they were reportedly lining up a bid for Kilmarnock striker Kevin Kyle. The big, bony, hard-working frontman even got as far as playing a trial game or two in Turkey before deciding that Russia’s volatile North Caucasus wasn’t the place to raise a family. In an eyebrow raising comment, he reportedly told Scottish journalists he "wouldn’t go to Russia for £100,000 a week". Fans who had seen his whole-hearted yet limited displays for Sunderland, Coventry and Hartlepool might have considered clubbing together for his airfare.

But that unsuccessful bid showed a marked increase in ambition from a side previously happy to rely on local talent seasoned by the occasional stray South American eager to make his mark in any part of Europe, no matter how obscure.

And when Finnish keeper Freidriksson arrived to keep occasional Russian international Vladislav Mandrykin – the closest thing to a household name in the squad – out of the starting XI it was clear things were beginning to change.

The combative, shaven header midfielder Gogita Gogua is the current driving force, while a winter loan signing from Rubin Kazan, Vladimir Dyadyun, has bagged four goals in seven games and is revelling in his first sniff of regular first team football.

It is, of course, still early days. In those opening seven games, Spartak Nalchik have faced the division’s three newcomers, along with cash-strapped Krylya Sovietov. But a 5-2 demolition of Rostov – another side generally performing better than expected – and gritty draws against last year’s top two suggests that this may not be a flash in the pan.

With Dynamo Moscow, Zenit St. Petersburg and Lokomotiv Moscow in their next three games, the Spartak of the south have every opportunity to underline their credentials.

After all, two years ago an unfancied provincial side made a bright start even as Russian football assumed they would be caught and reeled in. Rubin Kazan went on to win back-to-back titles and are among the 2010 favourites – could the same happen for Spartak Nalchik?


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Photo courtesy: Yuila Novikova