By Eduard Nisenboim & Pavle Gognidze
Valeri Gazzaev's position as coach of PFC CSKA Moskva could depend on the team he assembled at such cost overturning a first-leg deficit against the Macedonian champions FK Vardar tonight in the UEFA Champions League second qualifying round.
The ambitions are huge for Russia's richest club and stretch beyond domestic domination. They would dearly love to make their mark on the European stage, a dream that once more hangs in the balance following the 2-1 victory on Russian soil by underdogs Vardar last week. Gazzaev needs to deliver, because he has been handed seemingly unlimited funds. Since 2001, when CSKA came under new ownership, they have been able to sign their pick of players as they rebuilt the squad regardless of expense.
Last year CSKA smashed the Russian transfer record to buy the Latvian international Juris Laizans. They followed this by breaking the record again when the Czech international midfield player Jirí Jarosík joined from AC Sparta Praha for €3.5m. Not content, they then signed Croatia's striker Ivica Olic from NK Dinamo Zagreb for, by Russian standards, a stunning €5m.
Gazzaev's spending power is unrivalled in Russia as chairman Eugeni Giner appears to have bottomless pockets. Add Gazzaev's level of experience - he is the current Russian national coach as well - and you should have a recipe for success.
Domestically, CSKA have been in command during the 2003 season and look like winning the title. They have a seven-point lead, although their immediate rivals - FC Saturn Moskovskaya Oblast and FC Dinamo Moskva - have a game in hand. Win or lose, though, CSKA's style of play has been heavily criticised: three defensive midfielders and one striker forces them to play the long-ball game. One scribe compared their approach to elephants playing football such is their lack of creativity.
They lost in the first round of the Russian Cup and against FC Lokomotiv Moskva in the Russian Super Cup. Add the defeat by Vardar and it is clear why the press - fuelled by Gazzaev quotes such as "I don't know a player whose last name is Playmaker" - are turning their pens on the coach.
Record books have been scrutinised to strengthen their arguments as, on the European stage, Gazzaev's teams have been poor. Under his charge in the mid-1990s, FC Alania Vladikavkaz were humiliated by Rangers FC (7-3) and Eintracht Frankfurt (6-0). While Gazzaev has also overseen Russia's defeats by Georgia (1-0) and Albania (3-1) in the UEFA EURO 2004™ qualifiers.
And now, CSKA have made a dreadful start to the Champions League - it could have been worse but for their injury-time goal - which has evoked painful memories of last year's failed endeavours: defeats by Parma AC in the UEFA Cup first round and Lokomotiv in the title play-off.
CSKA need to patch up their defensive weaknesses tonight. Despite having six Russian internationals, including two goalkeepers, at the back, their goals-against record is comparable to that of the bottom club FC Torpedo-Metallurg Moskva. In the last six league games they have leaked eleven goals. Their strength is set-pieces - which highlights their inability to score from open play - and in the same number of matches, they have scored eleven goals, eight from set plays. The other three came from defensive errors.
It seems that for Gazzaev the only way to silence the critics is to win - and do it in style.
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