Though there are still two rounds of Russian Premier League fixtures left before the winter break, there is little doubt FC Amkar Perm can be counted as the surprise package of the first half of the season.
Little known across the continent, Amkar are in real contention for a European berth – sixth going into the penultimate set of games and just six points shy of leaders FC Zenit, they have lost only three of their 17 matches. It marks a swift rise for Amkar, who were founded as recently as 1994 and promoted to the top flight nine years later. They have stayed there ever since but have been mostly mid-table, aside from a fourth-placed finish in 2008.
Coach Miodrag's Božović – now at the FC Rostov helm – was credited for Amkar's success on that occasion, and it is Stanislav Cherchesov who is currently acclaimed for the western club's upward trajectory. A former FC Spartak Moskva and Russia goalkeeper, Cherchesov previously managed Spartak, FC Zhemchuzhina Sochy and FC Terek Grozny, whom he led to a best-ever placing of eighth last term.
We will not fight just for survival – we will live, work, progress and play," said Cherchesov, 50, earlier in the campaign. "It is not money that gets results, it is the players who are bought with this money." Amkar have already beaten Spartak, FC Dinamo Moskva and FC Kuban Krasnodar (twice), as well as drawing with Zenit, prompting some observers to suggest they may indeed be the real deal.
"The main reason for our success is our coach," captain Dmitri Belorukov told UEFA.com. "He chose the new players who have become part of the team very quickly. Under Cherchesov we have also improved our physical conditioning. He is keen on tactics and makes sure he gives us all the necessary information on our opponents. We are also better mentally – we feel much more confident. We have improved in every sense."
Amkar's sole experience of UEFA competition came in the 2009/10 UEFA Europa League play-offs, where they suffered a 3-2 aggregate defeat by eventual runners-up Fulham FC. However, Belorukov believes they can have another taste of Europe. "We want to win every match although our bosses have not told us anywhere specific to finish in the league," the defender said. "We want to do as well as possible. If we continue as we are then we can qualify for the Europa League."
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