WORDS: ROBERT DILLON
After big-name appointment Slaven Bilic failed to stabilise an inefficient Lokomotiv operation in Moscow, the railwaymen have turned to the quietly confident Leonid Kuchuk this season, after he steered unfancied Kuban Krasnodar into Europe last time out. Could he be the answer?
Lokomotiv Moscow may not be the traditional fourth power in Moscow football – that honour belongs to former top-flight powerhouse, and now second-tier strugglers, Torpedo – but in recent years no one can deny that Loko have been the fourth wheel on the Moscow wagon.
Breaking Spartak Moscow’s post-Soviet domination with their maiden title in 2002, and following it up two years later, they were, for a short period, the team to beat in Russia.
That may no longer be the case, but the fact remains that Lokomotiv should be one of the country’s leading lights. In a hark back to the days of the Iron Curtain and sporting societies, the club still maintains close ties to Russian Railways, who funded the state-of-the-art Lokomotiv Stadium at Cherkizovo, where only the downtrodden pitch detracts from one of the finest stadia in the country. That Spartak have opted to groundshare with Loko rather than any of their other neighbours speaks volumes.
While the railways continue to fund the side, Lokomotiv’s fans remain expectant. However, the title is a distant dream – they have slipped to seventh place three times since their last league success – a club of their size should realistically be qualifying for Europe on an annual basis. After all, with six spots open to Russian clubs, seventh place finishes do not cut the mustard.
It was the dreaded seventh place that cost Portuguese journeyman Jose Couceiro his job in the dugout after the elongated 2011/12 campaign, when the boardroom, led by controversial chairwoman and CSKA fan Olga Smorodskaya, decided that change was need. And not just small change – a big name, a bright young thing of the managerial world who could take the club back into contention for trophies.
Enter Slaven Bilic.
As boss of Croatia, Bilic carved out a name for himself as a talented young upstart, his media-savvy style and successes over England endearing him to the world’s press. His national side arguably overachieved, and it appeared only a matter of time before the Hajduk Split hero made his way to one of Europe’s biggest clubs. For Loko to sign him up was undoubtedly a huge coup, and when the likes of Vedran Corluka and Roman Pavlyuchenko made their way to Cherkizovo, hopes were high that the railway boys were on the way back.
Not so. Hamstrung by inconsistency, a misfiring front line and the bizarre decision to sell Russian international full-back Andrei Eshchenko to Anzhi on the cheap in midseason, Loko limped through, never putting up a genuine challenge for even the last of the European spaces.
While cross-city rivals Dinamo overcame a shocking start to finish five points ahead of them, and Rubin Kazan reached the Europa League despite being anonymous domestically all year, Loko staggered home in ninth, closer to relegation play-offs than the Champions League. Moreover, the fans were in uproar at the club’s leadership.
After a protracted saga in which Bilic and Smorodskaya’s rebuilding plans were rejected and the pair sent away to rethink, the Croatian manager was eventually dismissed shortly after the final round of matches, the former media darling fleeing to Besiktas to try and limit the damage to his reputation.
As Lokomotiv’s season crumbled, along with Bilic’s managerial reputation, some 800 miles due south another club were upsetting the hierarchy to put their name on the Russian footballing map.
Kuban Krasnodar, known within Russia as something of a yo-yo club until 2011, were managing on a weekly basis to overcome the loss of star striker Lacina Traore to Anzhi and manager Dan Petrescu to Dinamo just a few weeks into the season, hauling themselves into European contention.
Kuban, a side founded in the 1920s, and now facing local competition from supermarket magnate Sergei Galitsky’s FC Krasnodar, were well poised to manage just that until Christmas, when a bizarre episode saw well-respected yet oft-dismissed manager Yuri Krasnozhan – who once left Loko in an uncertain haze of match-fixing allegations – leave the club after apparent disagreements over long-term strategy and transfer policy. Into the void stepped Leonid Kuchuk, a little-known Belarusian whose most recent job saw him walk away from cash-strapped Ukrainian side Arsenal Kyiv.
Unemployed and available, his only previous Russian experience a relegation into the regional leagues with provincial side Salyut Belgorod, to the vast majority of eyes he was the cheap and easy option, and little more.
Even a raft of titles in Moldova – six in a row from 2003 to 2009 – were taken with a pinch of salt, achieved as they were with the dominant Sheriff Tiraspol, who have relinquished their grip on Moldovan football just once since the turn of the millennium. Kuchuk’s reign may well have cemented that dominance, but standing at the head of a well-oiled machine seemed unlikely to convince those predicting a steady slide down the table for Kuchuk’s Kuban.
A few months later, however, they were all convinced. Rather than capitulate in the face of rising pressure from teams around them in the table, Kuchuk’s arrival shored up the Krasnodar club into one of the country’s most consistent sides. Unbeaten in the league since his arrival, Kuban took a point from Moscow in the game which saw CSKA become champions, before beating moneybags Anzhi at home to claim fifth place and a spot in the qualifying rounds of the Europa League – the first time the club have been anywhere near Europe.
With that sort of record, achieved at an improving yet unfashionable team, Kuchuk was the obvious option to replace the sheepish Bilic at Lokomotiv. In contrast to his predecessor, who was never afraid to speak his mind to the cameras, the Belarusian is never likely to be found at the centre of controversy. Whereas the Croatian struggled to exploit Loko’s midfield strengths, Kuchuk’s utilisation of Aras Ozbiliz and Alexei Ionov on the wings at Kuban was crucial to his side’s climb up the league ladder. Outside the top two, only notoriously defensive Rubin conceded fewer goals than Kuban last season, while Loko shipped just five fewer than Rostov, who wound up in a relegation play-off. In short, he ticks all the boxes Bilic couldn’t.
In terms of club stature, Kuban to Lokomotiv remains a big jump. In terms of current quality, the difference is arguable, the Moscow side having recently sold star midfielder and captain Denis Glushakov to rivals Spartak to compound fans’ miseries. Kuban, on the contrary, has been a proving ground for a number of RPL talents – the aforementioned Traore and Ozbiliz to name but two – who are being courted by larger clubs.
Kuban, having reached their highest ever league position, now face a new challenge under Dorinel Munteanu, as larger clubs seem to take advantage of their relatively small budget and managerial change. Gone is Ionov to Anzhi, midfield partner Vladislav Kulik to Rubin, Marcos Pizzelli to cross-town rivals Krasnodar and defensive utility Igor Lolo to Rostov, with Ozbiliz also being courted by the top clubs. Eight players have left permanently, with just three coming in, and with Europe on the horizon, it could be a long season without Kuchuk to steady the ship.
Meanwhile, the Belarusian supremo has little to lose, in many ways, by making the move to Moscow. While it may be down the table, he goes up in stature, and the salary on offer from his bosses at the railways will be substantially more than that coming from his old paymasters in Krasnodar. With Loko at their lowest point since the fall of the Soviet Union and the fans begging for stability, he has little to lose in chancing his hand in the big city.
He has a lot of work on his hands, the only summer recruits so far being Dynamo Kyiv defender Taras Mykhalyk and the promising Sergei Tkachev from Metalist. Glushakov is yet to be replaced, the striking situation is less than ideal, and his own lack of international reputation may hinder any attempts to bring in the bigger names.
However, Kuchuk has already proved to many in his short time in Russia that big names are not essential for his methods to work, and that by going back to basics – rather than trying to revolutionise the game as so many managers feel they must – it is possible to get results.
Entering the new season, Kuban and Lokomotiv are teams in transition. Kuban need their new boss to show the same resolve as his predecessor if they are to continue their upward momentum and make the most of Europe, whereas Loko need a spark of inspiration to slow their gradual slide into obscurity. There may be too many deep-rooted issues for the new man to take them straight back into Champions League contention, but with Kuchuk at the helm, a top-six finish should be eminently achievable for the Railwaymen. Should be.