FC Tobol Kostanay top the table in Kazakhstan after three games, but new coach Ravil Sabitov says his side are "playing blindfold" when it comes to assessing opponents.
The 42-year-old former FC Lokomotiv Moskva and FC Dinamo Moskva defender served his coaching apprenticeship in his native Russia, with FC Khimki, FC Torpedo Moskva and the national Under-19 squad among his assignments. However, he faces his biggest challenge yet with seven-time Premier League runners-up Tobol.
The club are desperate for a first title, having dismissed coach Dmitry Ogay following last season's fourth-placed finish, and with two wins and a draw under their new boss, they may be on the right track.
"Tobol had a good team with big ambitions even before my arrival," said Sabitov. "We have started well because the whole team prepared well from January to March – all of us, players, coaches, staff. Now we just need to keep picking up points without making mistakes."
It sounds simple, yet with information on opposition sides hard to come by, and scouting missions logistically difficult in such a large country, Sabitov says his team are having to improvise. "It's impossible to see all the clubs in action, so I'm not really aware of our rivals' strengths and weaknesses," he conceded. "At the moment we are playing blindfold."
Blindfold, and a little on the wild side. They lead not only the standings but also any list of infringements, with two red cards in their three outings. "I want players to have hot hearts but cool heads," said Sabitov. "Forward Nurbol Zhumaskaliyev is a great example, showing amazing commitmemt and composure at the same time."
Friday's meeting with champions FK Aktobe will be a measure of how far Tobol have come, and Sabitov is looking forward to it. "It will be a massive test for us, but we know our strengths," he said. "There will be no easy games, because every team will try rise to the challenge and show their best against Tobol.
"Personally, I am very interested in the Aktobe game," he added. "I can see that the standard of Kazakh football is high. That was a bit of a surprise, as I didn't imagine there would be so many skilful players in Kazakhstan. Now I see that football here has taken a significant step forward."
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