The region bordering the Sea of Azov and the Black Sea has never been regarded as a footballing hotbed in Russia, but FC Kuban Krasnodar are starting to cause a stir in Europe, opening their first UEFA Europa League tie with a 2-0 win at Motherwell FC to move to within sight of the play-offs.
Founded in 1928, the club – which takes its name from the local river, and the informal name for the surrounding region – is one of the oldest in Russia, but Kuban did little to draw attention to themselves until relatively recently, three years in the Soviet top flight in the 1980s, and a brief flirtation with the top tier after independence marking the pinnacles of their achievements. As recently as three years ago, they were in the second division, but their ascent since has been sudden and dramatic.
Back in 2010, former Chelsea FC defender Dan Petrescu took over as the club's coach, leading them to promotion to the Premier-Liga and – more surprisingly – an eighth-placed finish in their first season back in the top tier. He moved on to FC Dinamo Moskva soon afterwards, and while Kuban went through two coaches in the space the next 12 months – Yuri Krasnozhan and Leonid Kuchuk, who left for FC Lokomotiv Moskva – they topped their 2011 achievement by finishing fifth in 2012/13.
That success opened the door to Europe, and an influx of talent. Romania's most-capped international, Dorinel Munteanu, came in as coach, having previously won a domestic title with FC Oţelul Galaţi, and then led them into the UEFA Champions League group stage. More dramatically, the Kuban board managed to snare 31-year-old striker Djibril Cissé following the former Liverpool FC star's release by Queens Park Rangers FC.
Cissé, moreover, has not come to Russia just for the money, with the striker eager to prove himself worthy of a regular place in the national team. "If Kuban hit the mark and I score goals then this is fairly possible," he explained. "I want to give everything, all I have, and to return to the national team." Thus far he has not managed to score in four appearances for the club, but few doubt given his first performances that the goals will start to flow once Cissé is up to full speed.
The 45-year-old Munteanu, meanwhile, made his official debut as Kuban coach with last Thursday's 2-0 win at Motherwell. "We congratulated the players after the match but reminded them that the second leg will also be difficult and therefore they should keep our concentration," he explained. There was no loss of focus in evidence as Kuban held FC Spartak Moskva to a 2-2 draw on Sunday – tellingly, it extended their unbeaten run in the league to 16 games.
More excitingly, it was also played in front of the biggest crowd of the season so far in Russia – 30,000 packed the stands at the Kuban Stadium, and the hope is that a similar turn-out will be in evidence for the decider against Motherwell. "The most important thing is that coaches, players and management are united," the Bulgarian midfielder Ivelin Popov told UEFA.com, explaining the club's success. "We fight for each other on the pitch and we have great support from our fans.
"That's why we get results. I don't want to compare Munteanu with previous coaches – everybody have their own methods. Dorinel is a nice person and great professional. He says: 'Just play football and I am responsible for the results.' Psychologically that is great. We feel liberated."
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