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Richard van Poortvliet: Anzhi’s rollercoaster ride takes new twist

It’s been a strange year for Anzhi Makhachkala. Not that long ago, it would have been hard enough find someone who could locate the city on a map, let alone pronounce the capital of Dagestan, which lies on the shores of the Caspian Sea. From fighting for a place in the Champions League 12 months ago, the side from the South of Russia are bottom of the Russian Premier League and only picked up their first win of the season on the March 9.

Anzhi’s troubles have been well documented. Billionaire owner, Suleyman Kerimov, who had bankrolled his hometown club to the tune of $300 million, decided to downscale his operations and investment into the Premier League outfit, which saw the likes of Samuel Eto’o, Willian, Lacina Traore, Lassana Diarra and Guus Hiddink all depart. What was left, was a threadbare squad, which picked up just eight points, in their first 19 league games.

However, there maybe some light at the end of the tunnel. Unless Zenit St Petersburg produce one of the shocks of recent Champions League history and overturn a 4-2 deficit against Borussia Dortmund, it is likely Anzhi will be the only Russian club left in European competition. However, their own involvement in Europe is less than secure, as they face AZ Alkmaar in the second leg of their Europa League Round of 16 tie, having lost the first leg in the Netherlands 1-0.

The two sides met in the same competition last year, with the result being rather different. Anzhi prevailed 6-0 on aggregate, including a stunning 5-0 victory away from home. This perhaps more than anything helps put into perspective just how the Russian Premier League outfit’s fortunes have changed over the last year.

There are signs that Kerimov, who made his billions from banking and the fertilizer business, maybe regaining interest in his local project. With Premier League safety slipping further and further from their grasp, Ukrainian international midfielder Olexandr Aliyev, forward Fedor Smolov and former Zenit striker Aleksandr Bukharov were brought into try and help the club survive. All three players are high pedigree players, who will help to improve a young and inexperienced squad, while they will all be amongst the highest paid players within Anzhi’s squad.

The side from Dagestan are now just five points from leaving the relegation zone and with nine games to go, Anji certainly have their fate in their own hands.

Former star Samuel Eto’o, who was the world’s best paid player during his stint in Makhachkala, earning £350,000 a week, has not forgotten his old teammates. He still remains close to owner, Kerimov and has promised a bonus of £200,000 to the team, if they manage to beat the drop and secure their Premier League status for another season.

Kerimov’s sponsorship of Anji just show’s how reliant Russian clubs are on wealthy benefactors and just what can happen, when they decide to stop bankrolling their clubs.

FC Moscow were not so lucky. Formed in 2004 by the Moscow government, they managed to qualify for the Europa League in 2008. However, in 2010, their main sponsor, Norilsk Nickel withdrew their support and with no fan base or other sources of income, the club went bankrupt.

While FC Moscow only attracted gates of a few thousand and were unloved by the citizen’s of Moscow, Anzhi represent the whole region of Dagestan, one of the poorest in Russia and were revered by the locals. During their few months of fame, they regularly had the highest attendance of any football clubs in the Russian Premier League. While there won’t be a return to the heady days of Eto’o and Hiddink any time soon, Kerimov certainly won’t allow his hometown club to fall into oblivion like FC Moscow.

Richard van Poortvliet is a sport presenter and correspondent at Russia Today, based in Moscow.