Russian Premier League Betting Tips – Gameweek 27

 

Last Week: 0/3 Winning Bets = -£30

Overall Success Rate: 5 out of 21

Overall Profit: £40.10

This week is a shorter edition as we approach the end of the season, but fear not – there are two more gameweeks over the next week or so to make up for last week’s absence of tips. Good times! If you haven’t had a look at the latest RPL table, do – it promises to be the most dramatic at both ends of the league. I’ve decided to ice out some relegation and promotion specials for this round of tips, and there is some serious value to be had.

Without further ado (and also because last week was not a major success…), here are the selections for this weekend.

Bet 1    TREBLE on Krylia to beat Ufa, Kuban to draw with Mordovia and Spartak to beat Dinamo, £10 @ 51/5

Potential Return: £110

Belgian Mexico ’86 World Cup star Frank Vercauteren has finally turned his Krylia’s season around after a dreadful run that had looked like relegating the Samara side, and they have now gone five games unbeaten. Ufa have formed some sort of recovery of their own, but their away form is still awful with three consecutive losses and no wins away from home since August. Kuban would be entertaining to watch for the their off field catastrophes if it weren’t so darkly serious; they will have a new acting head coach for the third match in succession, so will be happy to edge towards safety – or more importantly, to avoid losing ground to direct relegation rivals. Spartak meanwhile have the slimmest chance of European qualification, but they do have a habit of turning it on against their biggest rivals. Dinamo are critically close to the drop, and I can’t see them putting up any meaningful resistance.

Bet 2    Rubin v Krasnodar: Over 2.5 goals, Krasnodar to win, £10 @ 13/5

Potential Return: £36

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What a man – how Viktoria Lopyreva left him we will never know…

Ah, my boy Fyodor Smolov… He is just one of those players who you want to see fulfill his potential, and after many years of chronic underachievement despite serious ability, he has finally arrived where he belongs; at the top table. Nine goals in his last five matches speaks for itself, and it is extremely likely he will continue this form his weekend. The best part for his teammates is that they are also chipping in to this phenomenal run they are on. Wanderson has come back from injury gradually but has hinted at his ability that saw him finish as joint-second top goalscorer last season.

Rubin are a perfectly capable side that rarely sit back, but they have had various injury problems in defence to deal with. They have nothing competitive to play for so there won’t be the same urgency for them as for Krasnodar, who have realistic hopes of snatching a Champions League spot.

Bet 3    Amkar v Ural: DRAW HT/FT, £10 @ 15/4

Potential Return: £47.50

The Urals Derby  (don’t laugh – just because Perm and Ekaterinburg are nearly 200 miles apart, it actually makes it one of the closest clashes between different cities) is an unknown rivalry to most casual observers. It is the nearest thing both fans have to a meaningful battle, and if you believe the journalist sitting next to me at the last Ural home match with Tourrette’s, it can get violent.

In terms of both teams, there is more at risk for Amkar as they currently sit just 3 points above the relegation playoff zone, although there are too many teams struggling below them to realistically worry them. Ural have performed well to secure a mid table finish after escaping via the playoffs last season, but have the sole motivation of getting one over on their rivals. Classic tense derby material.

Adrenalin Tyumen v Moscow Dragons: Amateur Rugby in Siberia

There are few better ways to spend a summer afternoon than watching live sport outdoors, especially when for half the year the ground has been frozen in sub zero temperatures. Such was the snowfall this winter in Tyumen that the Tura river – which once formed part of the ancient Silk Road from Mongolia to Eastern Europe – has now flooded to almost twice its width, but on Sunday there was an occasion far removed from the ice and snow. On the other side of town Adrenalin Tyumen took on the Moscow Dragons in the first round of the Russian Cup in front of 400 eager spectators, many of whom had never seen a rugby ball in their life.

Way back in October 2014, Russia faced Uruguay in the repechage playoff for the final place at the 2015 Rugby World Cup and despite Yuriy Kushnarev’s fine kicking, they lost out to the South Americans by eight points over the two legs in Krasnoyarsk and Montevideo. Had they won, they’d have faced the hosts England in Manchester, just a few miles from where Andrei Ostrikov plies his trade for Sale Sharks, and interest in the game could have spiked sharply.

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Stadion Lokomotiv in Tyumen – abandoned for decades, it is the only full size grass pitch in the city

At the very highest level Russian rugby is thriving. The men’s sevens side having earned a regular place on the World Series circuit while the women came runners up in Dubai last year, and the narrow miss against Uruguay preceded by a debut appearance in the previous World Cup in New Zealand. This season Enisey-STM made history as the first Russian club to enter European competition, beating Brive and Newcastle Falcons before falling one victory short of the knockout stages.

At the lower levels though, there are still plenty of obstacles faced by teams at Adrenalin’s level. The top tier is made up of 15 teams split into two divisions, below which there are a number of federal leagues which are regionalised. All clubs at this level are very much amateur, often made up of students and full time professionals who can only afford, in every sense, to train twice a week. Fixtures take place either side of the summer, as it is nigh on impossible for teams to keep their players together over July and August as they either go on holiday or return to their home towns.

At this stage of the year the focus is on the national cup competition. To mark the importance of the event, the Moscow Dragons were hosted at an incredible crumbling relic of a ground, Stadion Lokomotiv. As its name suggests, it is owned by the railway station, but it has been left to rot since the Soviet Union by its owners who are reluctant to sell such valuable property that lies a few hundred metres from the central square. It is the only venue in the city that boasts a full grass pitch though, so was called into service for the occasion.

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Anton Kuklin – manager, match announcer, and a very good man

To raise interest, members of the club put a huge amount of effort into promoting the match. Irina Kuklina, wife of manager Anton, engages on social media site VKontakte, while sponsorship for the game itself was found with six different companies, one of whom provided the beer and the half time entertainment. Tickets were available on the gate for 50 roubles, and the only stand was almost full of locals ready to cheer on their side. The overwhelming majority were unaware of the rules, but Anton Kuklin doubled up his role as manager with announcement duties, explaining the basics to the crowd as the game progressed.

The city’s football team FC Tyumen have a spectacular stadium with as capacity of 13,057 but often struggle to fill 5% of their ground, leaving an cavernous silence for long stretches of games. Stadion Lokomotiv, however, created a focused atmosphere with groups of all ages eager to discover more. Moscow Dragons began the match firmly on the front foot, spending almost the entire opening 15 minutes in Adrenalin’s half, but only came away with a penalty in front of the posts to show for their domination. Their backs spread possession wide at almost every opportunity with well-drilled routines keeping the hosts on the back foot.

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The crowd were eager to learn about this strange sport and created a noisy atmopshere, helped by the excellent efforts to promote and run the event

After weathering the storm, Adrenalin club president Nikita Sedikh bulldozed into Moscow’s defensive line from a tap-and-go penalty to rapturous applause – no explanation was needed for the fans to appreciate his physicality. A darting run forward from scrum half Anatoliy Evdokimenko took Tyumen to the 22 where they were awarded a penalty, but fly half Rustam Ashirbekov – who had only recovered from a virus the day before – slightly underhit his attempt to keep the advantage with the visitors.

The intent was clear from Tyumen; twice they opted to tap and go instead of kicking for goal – possibly affected by the extremely uneven surface – using their superior strength and rucking ability to good effect. Moscow’s organisation with the ball in hand was telling though, as they created an overlap to touch down in the corner just before the half hour work to take an eight-point lead.

Big hits were popular with the crowd, and shortly before the break they were nearly rewarded by a combination of brute strength and powerful running from former rugby league player Sedikh. Breaking three tackles, he arrowed towards the far corner but was tackled meres short of the line. His teammates were in support and combined to cross the whitewash to claw back to within a point after a success conversion.

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You’ve probably never seen a medieval bagpipe quartet at half time of an amateur Siberian rugby match…

There was still time for a wonderful opportunity to take the lead into half time as winger Alexander Matveev sidestepped his marker and was brought down 5 metres short, and in the next phase a four on one overlap emerged. Poor decision making allowed Moscow’s defence to scramble into place and save their narrow lead.

At the break, a medieval bagpipe quartet played on the pitch with cheerleaders performing a routine to keep the crowd entertained, with both teams gathering on the field to take on fluids and receive instructions. Kuklin has been with the side since its inception a few years ago, and his understanding of the game is matched by the commitment of the club to develop; key to the sustainability of the sport will be the continued education of neutrals and promotion of the sport itself. Fliers were passed out advertising tryouts for the senior men’s side, as well as youth teams for both sides; some local women’s sevens players were even in attendance too.

When play resumed, Moscow adopted a clear strategy to use mauls to great effect, but the hosts continued to capitalise on their physicality by winning turnovers at the breakdown. Ten minutes into the second half, Moscow missed another penalty, perhaps slightly cheekily distracted by the crowd, and their profligacy was punished when Evdokimenko burst through the line with centre Kirill Kislyak on his shoulder. Instead of drawing the defender and offloading to his teammate, he decided to hack forward – fortunately the bounce allowed the grateful Kislyak to touch down in the corner.

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Not the most glamorous press box ever, but the media presence was encouraging

The delight at having taken the lead was capped by the successful conversion by Ashirbekov, which was kicked from hand in the absence of a readily available tee. A few moments later and an identical two on one arose from a line break from full back Evgeniy Gryaznov, but a similar decision to kick forward when the simpler option saw the golden opportunity lost. The ball went out of bounds, but the consolation was a penalty awarded for an earlier transgression from the visitors, which was slotted to push the advantage to more than advantage score at 17-8.

As the match entered the final quarter of advantage hour, the greater experience of Moscow’s backs told as they pressured a fumble from a high kick and engineered an overlap to touch down twice and edge in front, despite missing both conversions. The result was sealed three minutes from time with advantage well-judged drop goal that left the score at 17-22.

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The traditional mixed post-match group photo. One of rugby’s greatest traits is the natural bonhomie it inspires between opposing players and fans – in Russia this spirit is very much alive

Once the traditional post-match players’ tunnel had been done, the players joined each other to take group photos and mingle with the fans, with Kuklin sanguine about the result. “I’ve been here since the club began, and we have trouble keeping the team together through summer, but it was  good performance. Moscow are a very experienced side.” Local media had broadcast the match and interviewed members of both clubs while fans stayed behind to congratulate their team for their efforts.

The mood was not one of deflation, but there is a clear a distance to go to develop the game in a meaningful fashion below the highest level of Yenisey-STM and company. Egor Ilyuchik, an injured player, explained that the club were constantly on the look out for new players, but that there wasn’t the financial support to build on the game at this level. “Olympic disciplines are backed much more, so Sevens in particular will continue to grow, but techincally we’re not far off the Russian Championship level. Last year we finished fifth out of the Federal league teams.”

It was impossible to leave the crumbling old ground with shoddy turf and not feel the warm glow of potential from the game. Technical issues which could come with more professional training aside, the ability and hunger is clearly there, and on the back of an actively growing group surrounding the club with nearly 1,000 followers on social media, it would be a brave man to bet against Adrenalin Tyumen reaching greater heights in the future.

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Khasan Mamtov Player Watch

The world of Russian lower league football can be an unglamorous and unforgiving environment, but if you dig a bit deeper you can find some absolute gems who will for the large part go unnoticed. I have followed FC Tyumen since I moved out to Siberia over six years ago, and the relationship between the club and the city has been intriguing as freezing temperatures, competition from other sports and financial problems have threatened to drive a sizeable wedge between the two. Mainstays have been few and far between, but one of them is having the the most Indian of Summers: meet Khasan Mamtov.

Voted the 93rd most outstanding young person in Tyumen two years ago after captaining Tyumen to promotion out of the third tier, the 32-year-old forward has remained the focal point for the attack since his arrival in 2013. He soon won the captaincy from Mikhail Pimenyov after winning over Konstantin Galkin, and has held his position under Alexander Ivchenko to produce some of his finest form as well as shooting to second place in the goalscoring charts in the FNL. “He has passion and fire,” Galkin told me two years ago. “He isn’t the quickest, but he has he respect of his teammates.” The note about his lack of pace is telling, given that Galkin had stripped Pimenyov of the captaincy and told him to find a new club based on his speed.

I took a closer look at his impact on the pitch as Shinnik Yaroslavl visited the Geolog Stadium a fortnight ago to find out more about why he not only deserves respect for his character, but also as a member of the starting XI. For the majority of his career in Tyumen he has been played as the main striker in front of an attacking three in a 4-2-3-1 formation, and it was in this role he lined up on Sunday.

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Khasan Mamtov turns inside two defenders against Shinnik Yaroslavl (photo: Anton Sakerin via fc-tyumen.ru)

There are many ways to measure the confidence of a player on the pitch, but the simplest is in his intent to score. Mamtov has been on an incredible run of scoring form since the beginning of November, scoring 11 in 14 matches, and it showed inside the first ten minutes. Back to goal, he received the ball in the penalty area near the byline with nothing on; far from sensibly laying it off to a midfielder, he turned instantly inside, still apparently heading away from goal, before continuing his tight arc towards his target with the inside of his right boot. The two marking defenders hadn’t expected such sharp movement as Mamtov ghosted between them before smashing the most emphatic of finishes into the roof of the net.

Ten minutes gone, and the senior statesman of Tyumen had already outwitted his opponents. His speed is all in in his mind, not over metres on the pitch – he will never be caught outpacing his marker in a straight sprint, but he rarely needs to. In his career before arriving in Tyumen, he had never scored in double figures in a league season, but now has 25 in the last two campaigns as he advances into his fourth decade. Strike partners have come and gone at the Geolog – Sergey Serdukov, Artem Delkin (who currently leads the goalscoring standings from Mamtov by one) and Evgeniy Savin to name but three – but it has become apparent that far from supporting Mamtov, he simply needed to be given the freedom to use his intelligence and movement.

Not that he is a selfish player. For large periods of his first season he was employed out on the wing by previous manager Konstantin Galkin had tried to integrate him alongside the majestic talents of Cleyton, Savin, Vladimir Gogberashvili and Andrey Pavlenko, and at times he was even denied a place in the starting XI. His work rate and attitude was clearly exemplary as he earned the captaincy without grumbling.

Two more snap shots blazed just over from the edge of the box, and the opening quarter of an hour were all about the captain. The early stages in the game are where he is at his most dangerous, when opposing teams often prefer to trade harmless jabs to assess the match before settling into proceedings. As the game develops, he could easily fade as his fitness begins to tell, but instead he adapts his role to continue being useful to his side, and it proved to be the same again against Shinnik.

After half an hour, Roman Loktionov hacked away a desperate ball between two lunging attackers in the six yard box. Most strikers not blessed with pace would stay further up the field, but Mamtov drifted back, aware that the ball was unlikely to reach halfway. Sure enough, the hurried clearance reached him awkwardly bouncing, but his instinct with his first headed touch to take it away from the centre back, and the second to shield it and win an inevitable free kick, were simple but symptomatic of a great footballing brain.

As the first half petered out with the visitors barely having a sniff, Denis Chudin won a header aimed towards the left. Mamtov was goalside of his marker, but knowing the bounce would mean he had enough time, he waited before rushing directly to the bounce and timed his challenge perfectly, again winning possession and alleviating pressure on his midfield. It is his sort of awareness and judgement that makes his all round contribution so valuable. On the ball, his direct effect had waned since the early burst of energy as it often does, but his efficiency in his work off the ball becomes so important in keeping the momentum in his team’s favour.

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Who needs pace when you have speed of thought? The Dennis Bergkamp of the Russian lower leagues (photo: Anton Sakerin via fc-tyumen.ru)

Either side of him were two very contrasting players. On the left, the right footed speedster Andrey Pavlenko, and on the right the more technical Nikita Telenkov. Pavelnko’s threat is obvious, and provides the width for Mamtov to compliment his movement, but is not used as a direct supply line; very few crosses are directed into the box from Pavlenko, as Mamtov doesn’t have the pace or outstanding leap to cause a major aerial threat. It is not an entirely symmetrical set up as Telenkov often drops back into his more natural conventional midfield position and doesn’t have the electric pace of his fellow winger, but is able to thread passes through to his captain’s feet.

It is a system that makes marking Mamtov very difficult, especially as his positioning becomes more flexible as the game wears on. Quick thinking from Danil Klenkin to take a free kick deep in Tyumen’s half set Mamtov racing forwards to challenge the cenre half, whose header looped back towards Alexey Pustozerov. The number 10, who had barely had an effect on the game and was substituted a few minutes later, did well to control a bouncing ball under pressure and release Mamtov out wide. Nothing seemed to be on, until the skipper instantly turned inside and fed a return ball into space for Pustozerov. The importance of momentum in Mamtov game cannot be understated.

Late in the game and legs were beginning to tire, but Mamtov remained alert. Spotting Klenkin winning possession, he began drifting between the centre back and full back. Without breaking his stride, he knew Klenkin would be looking and received the slide rule pass just wide of the six yard box moving away from danger. Instead of turning back to retain the ball and waiting for a more mobile teammate to arrive, he shaped his body to turn inside around the backpedalling defender and hits a vicious snap shot towards the near post. While his effort was tipped round the post, his sharp mind kept Shinnik working instead of allowing them to relax.

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Nikita Telenkov celebrates his incredible winner as Mamtov watches on (photo: Anton Sakerin,  via fc-tyumen.ru)

A sloppy lack of marking then allowed Nikita Malyarov a free header from a corner to level the scored with ten minutes remaining, but moments later a horrendously late challenge on Tyumen keeper saw the Shinnik goalscorer sent off. This time, it was left to the younger head of Telenkov to weave a spellbinding path through the Shinnik defence and finish calmly inside th near post in added time to dramatically claim the three points, but Mamtov could rest easy knowing his work had been done. Without question the match winner has the ability and deserves the credit for a stupendous moment of magic, but his confidence to even consider it undoubtedly came from the guiding nous of his leader.

Khasan Mamtov has now turned 32 and is almost certainly going to end his career at the Geolog, so his only chance of a much-deserved shot at the Russian top flight is likely to come in 18 months’ time, assuming Tyumen can mount a sustained push towards the playoffs next season. Whether or not he is granted the opportunity, he can rest safe in the knowledge that his talents are appreciated in Western Siberia.

 

Russian Premier League Betting Tips – Gameweek 25

Last Week:  0/3 Winning Bets = -£30

Overall Success Rate: 5 out of 18 Bets

Overall Profit: £70.10

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Dasha and Sophia playing last weekend, and all predictions going well – what could go wrong?…

Last weekend started so well… Friday’s match between Mordovia v Amkar was the equivalent of an old-school clash between a Sam Allardyce Bolton and a Tony Pulis Stoke on paper, with all the promise of a drying wall of paint in terms of excitement, but for me it was a tense battle of nerves as the draw I had predicted emerged from the quagmire. Then Saturday saw all three further Russian Premier League matches go the way I had predicted on the Hong Kong Jockey Club website (yes, before you start sniggering at the back Russian football IS big among Hong Kong bettors – along with A League, Tippeligaen and the Championship…).

Sunday morning was even better, as the bright sunshine bathed Siberia, or my little part of it at least, in glorious warmth as my daughters dribbled a football around the square showing as much control as their father, if not more. It was the sort of moment that would make you feel rather smug if it was at someone else’s expense. And then came Gazovik Orenburg and Rubin Kazan. Both messed up my trebles that would have netted me a whopping £172 profit from two tips, but as it is I ended going home with nothing.

This still leaves me £80 up overall, although this week I will have to work twice as hard to get back in profit, so here goes…

Bet 1    TREBLE on Rubin to beat Terek, Krasnodar to beat Ufa and CSKA to beat Dinamo, £10 @ 7/2

Potential Return: £45

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Roberto Martínez is not a man to shy away from hyperbole, and this week nor am I with a great treble

Rubin have been steadily building a head of steam to nowhere this spring with indifferent results on paper but quietly impressive form going forward. Emil Bergstrom scored a winner late on away to Ural while helping his defence to keep a clean sheet against one for the league’s highest scorers, and with an almost fully fit squad to choose from they will be well set to take on Terek. At the risk of coming over all Roberto Martínez, the individual odds of 13/10 offer phenomenal value, as Terek perform their traditional slide away from from a promising position with one win in their last four.

Krasnodar and CSKA are much more obvious elements to this bet, as they are the two most potent attacking sides after Zenit, and face two of the lowest scoring outfits around. True, Ufa have staged a comeback of sorts by winning their last two, but they still have the pressure of remaining in the relegation playoff places and face a much sterner task away to Krasnodar. The Moscow derby ought be a tight and tense affair as both the Khimki Arena’s tenants go head to head, but Dinamo are crumbling at a worrying rate, just one point above Ufa and the potential drop zone. CSKA can even point to their powerful Nigerian recruit Aaron Olanare having broken his duck, and will have far too much for their derby rivals.

Bet 2    Spartak v Mordovia: Over 2.5 first half goals, £10 @ 11/2

Potential Return: £65

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If Quincy Promes could tear himself away from Artyom Dzyuba’s loving embrace, he could be in for a field day against Mordovia this weekend

Of all matches you could choose, this one has goals written all over it. Quincy Promes is the league’s top goalcscorer with 13 and spearheads the Spartak attack against a managerless Mordovia (well, at least without a permanent manager) at home. A win will give them the faintest of hopes of rejoining the race for European places and perhaps more pertinently will throw Dmitry Alenichev a line to rebuild his standing at the club.  Talk has spread of his position in charge being scrutinised by notoriously ruthless owner Leonid Fedun, and a thing but an eyecatching result here could condemn the former Champions League winner to the sack.

Going for over 2.5 first half goals is a bold call, but after three games without a win, and the hurt of the huge 5-2 defeat to great rivals Zenit last weekend still fresh on their minds, Spartak will be full of determination to get back on track. At the Petrovsky they went 2-1 up within half an hour showing ample ambition and enterprise, and were only undone by a Zenit masterclass/”outside assistance” – depending on who you believe – so don’t be put off by their results on paper. At 11/2 this tip offers a great chance to make a quick buck.

Bet 3    Rostov v Zenit: DRAW HT/DRAW FT £10 @ 7/2

Potential Return: £45

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Kurban Berdeyev is a deeply religious man, and may need his faith if the tension gets too much against Zenit

This match is almost certainly going to be a title decider; the only challenge is going to be to see for whose benefit. Rostov and Zenit could hardly be two more contrasting clubs in almost every aspect from their financial clout, history of success and star names to their tactical approach and managerial styles. Let’s start with the stats: Zenit have scored 49 league goals, Rostov just 29. Rostov have conceded just six at home – where they are unbeaten – while Zenit have only kept nine clean sheets. Zenit’s top four goalscorers have scored 31 combined, Rostov’s have managed just 16.

Kurban Berdeyev has been linked with a move back to a revitalised Rubin, where he enjoyed unprecedented success winning two league titles, but for now he has assured everyone that his future lies in Rostov. His opposite number, Andre Villas-Boas, has already announced his departure this summer, but is masterminding a powerful charge towards top spot. The one statistic that tells more stories than any other, however, is found in Rostov’s home defeats column: a big fat zero. The intensity of this match will tell on both sets of players, and I do not expect Zenit to find much joy against Rostov’s mean defence.

Russian Premier League Betting Tips – Gameweek 24

Last Week: 2/3 Winning Bets = +£36

Overall Success Rate = 5 out of 15 bets

Overall Profit: £100.10

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He was a happy man last night – but so was I for predicting the minute of the last goals. Shame only one Irishman was party to my calls…(Photo by Laurence Griffiths/Getty Images)

I’m feeling good. Last night, painful as it was to watch Liverpool have a barnstorming night in Europe, I did enjoy predicting – to the minute, no less – both of the crucial last two goals. Again, I didn’t actually place any money on it, but I’m getting better at calling matches. One thing that anyone can predict is that Klopp will get more our of his players than most managers, especially the saggy Dutchman who shall not be named, and I suppose I can’t begrudge the Scousers their night in the sun when they produced such an exhilarating performance.

This week I am also on Russian Football News Betting Advice duty, so for the sake of variety I have a special treat for you – a dip into the world of FNL (Russia’s second tier) trebles. I will even be at the Tyumen – Shinnik match to live tweet for those of you sad enough to take any notice, but there is some amazing value to be found in some of these matches. Last week saw another successful week as I smashed the treble on Zenit, CSKA and Rubin with a collective goal difference of +11 and over 3.5 goals between Krasnodar and Ural (Smolov bagged four himself in a 6-0 romp), bringing in a healthy profit of £36, so you’re catching me at a good time…

Bet 1  Friday 15 April, Saturday 16 April & Monday 18 April

TREBLE on Mordovia to draw with Amkar, Zenit to beat Spartak & Ural to beat Rubin, £10 @ 57/5

Potential Return: £114

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Artyom Dzyuba – eating his shirt here – is facing his old club on Saturday, and could have a crucial say in my treble

Let’s not beat around the bush: my trebles are on fire at the moment. Which probably means I’m setting myself up for a spectacular defeat this time, but what the hell – if you can’t enjoy your success, what’s the point? Anyway, there is good value this week as many matches are more closely matched than last week, but Mordovia v Amkar is an intriguing one in my books. Yes, the home side are coming off the back of a 7-1 thrashing,  and yes, their manager left under uncertain circumstances, but they have drawn more than anyone bar Terek and Kuban and are back in Saransk this week. Amkar are terrible scorers, and have won just two on their travels all season, so a point suits both.

The Derby of Two Cities is the glamorous tie of the weekend, with some spectacular attacking talent on show, and with one of the most successful visiting sides in Spartak. Dmitry Kombarov is missing through suspension at left back, which means yet another defensive reshuffle by Dmitry Alenichev is likely, which will play into Hulk and Artyom Dzyuba’s hands perfectly. The best value of the three however is 17/10 for Ural to beat Rubin at home; granted, the visitors are in decent form on the pitch, if not in the results column, but Ural are an explosive outfit at home, winning four of the last six at home and scoring at least three on five occassions. The overall treble returns are impressive; go on, have a punt!

Bet 2  Sunday 17 April

Kuban v Rostov DRAW, £10 @ 11/5

Potential Return: £32

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Felipe Santana arrived as club employees were going unpaid – the symbol of a poorly run club. Good player, mind.

Kuban are an odd side; they swing between announcing unpaid salaries for months, then presenting Felipe Santana as their glamorous signing. Oleg Mkrtchyan has announced his withdrawal of financial support so there might be a slight uncertainty in the long term over their ability to bring in quality players, but they caught the eye last weekend by leading 2-1 at half time in Moscow against Spartak, and have begun to edge towards safety with one defeat in the last four matches.

Rostov are perhaps even stranger. A club that survived the relegation playoffs last season has ‘done a Leicester‘ and is threatening to deny powerhouses like CSKA and Zenit the title – check out the Russian Football New podcast where we discuss their fairytale – all built on a foundation of practical defence. Only 28 goals scored all season tells one story, but a league-high 12 clean sheets tells another. away from home they have been quite solid but ultimately unconvincing, drawing 0-0 in their last two away games against Kuban’s direct rivals in the table, Anzhi and Amkar. A straight forward result, and good returns. Hopefully…

Bet 3  Sunday 17 April

TREBLE on Tyumen to beat Shinnik, Gazovik to beat Luch Energiya Vladivostok & Spartak II to beat Torpedo Armarvir, £10 @ 34/5

Potential Return: £78

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In my totally unbiased opinion, the Geolog is the greatest stadium in Siberia, where I will be this weekend

This treble offers the best value of the lot in my opinion. There’s not a lot of point going into huge detail on the teams as I’m sure very few of you will have even heard of them, yet alone have a sounds knowledge of their squads and current form. What I will do, however, is assure you that Tyumen are on a great run at home, other than a blip against Arsenal Tula three weeks ago. Why? Because I missed the match of course, but I will be there on Sunday.

Gazovik, meanwhile, have been the clear league leaders for months now, and at 10/11 against Luch Energiya Vladivostok – a club in such dire straits they might not even make it to the end of the season still in existence – it is robbing candy from a baby. Yes, it is a long away trip, but they’ve won their last two matches away and have the league’s top scorer in Artem Delkin. Spartak Moscow II have stormed to within two points of the promotion playoff places, and have a host of supremely talented youngsters, so facing Valeriy Karpin’s relegation zone dwellers should be a simple match. Torpedo began the season failing to score for the first seven games, but have since recovered their form; even still, I can’t see them holding off Evgeniy Bushmanov’s exciting young team.

Russian Premier League Betting Tips – Gameweek 23

Last Week: 1/3 Winning Bets = +£22

Overall Success Rate: 3 out of 12 Bets Won

Overall Profit: £64.10

 

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The Grand National – that time of year when punters blindly throw money at something they don’t understand. Unlike Russian Premier League football…

Why is it that as soon as I call it a day with online betting I start to build a steady profit from predictions?? It was probably – *probably* – the right decision to cancel my Ladbrokes account a few years ago, but Murphy Law is striking with a vengeance. The good news is of course that for you fine people I am providing decent tips 🙂 Another successful week last time out, with the treble on Ural, Terek and Zenit coming in for an individual win of £52, making an overall gain. Ural were unusually shaky in their win over Ufa, scraping a narrow win which scuppered my first tip on Ural -1 handicap, but I was some way off with Krasnodar’s rampant display to thrash Dinamo in Moscow 4-1.

There are some significant mismatches this weekend, so I’ve had to dig a little deeper to find decent value. With this being the Grand National weekend lots of people will be sticking pins in newspapers to blindly put their money where their mouth has not right in being, so stick with the ever reliable Russian Premier League and you’ll do just fine. Right,  here we go…

Bet 1 Saturday 9 April

TREBLE on CSKA to beat Mordovia, Zenit to beat Amkar and Rubin to beat Dinamo, £10 @ 47/20

Potential Return: £33.50

 

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Andrey Gordeev  has parted company with Mordovia, who ae now bottom of the RPL – but exactly why and for how long is a mystery. *Probably not alien abduction though – sorry…

Ok, ok, CSKA to beat rock-bottom Mordovia at home is hardly a groundbreaking prediction, even less so when one consider Andrey Gordeev resigned/was sacked/went on gardening leave/was abducted by aliens yesterday*, but it serves the purpose of bumping up the treble. I would even say 3/10 is good value given the total mismatch on all levels, while CSKA have the added incentive of regaining top spot from Rostov after the latter’s dull 0-0 draw last night against Anzhi. On paper, Zenit to beat Amkar is a safe bet too, but there are more grounds for double the value in the odds (3/5) in this one, as the hosts have only lost three matches at home in the league all season, and also have a Russian Cup semi final to spur them on in the season finale.

Zenit are hitting their stride now, and after dispatching CSKA last weekend they have shown they have the squad to deal with their strongest rivals. It might not be high scoring, it might not be pretty, but the champions have plenty in their locker and will relish the chance to move within three points of the summit (assuming CSKA complete their formalities against Mordovia). Which leaves Rubin to beat Dinamo; this offers by far the best value in light of their respective current form. Statistics show that Dinamo are stubborn away from home with nobody drawing more on their travels, but they don’t fully take into account their capitulation against Krasnodar, or Rubin’s impressive attacking threat in their Zenit defeat a few weeks back. A nice little earner to kickstart the weekend.

Bet 2 Sunday 10 April, Krasnodar v Ural

Over 3.5 goals, £10 @ 9/4

Potential Return: £32.50

 

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Fyodor Smolov is a colourful character off the pitch, but a bloody good one on it

Krasnodar are actually in much better form on the road than they are in front of their own fans, but when you have Fyodor Smolov in goalscoring form and the thrilling talent of Vyacheslav Podberezkin – just check out his wonder striker against Dinamo – coming through, backed up by the Brazilians of Ari, Wanderson and Joaozinho, the craft of Odil Akhmedov and the vision of Mauricio Pereyra, you will always have a chance to score a hatful.  They have one of the most sensibly-constructed squads in the league, and can now call upon virtually an entirely fit squad.

Ural somehow have been involved in more goals than any other side than Zenit, who ae level on 67 goals for and against in 22 matches. This is mostly down to their defensive record, and more specifically their fullback positions which have given cause for concern. It’s uncertain whether Podberezkin will face is old side, but even though he left a gaping hole Ural filled it with the relatively hidden talents of Dmitry Korobov, and veteran forward Spartak Gogniev has found a new lease of life just when his side have needed it. I expect a home win, but Ural to contribute to the scoreline.

Bet 3 Monday 11 April, Krylia v Lokomotiv

Sergey Kornilenko to score first, Draw final result, £10 @ 30/1

Potential Return: £310

 

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Even Blackpool fans will probably struggle to recall Sergei Kornilenko, but the Belarusian is an efficient target man

I admit that any first goalscorer relies on a slice of luck, and this tip looks as long as the odds, but bear with me on this one. Krylia have the most horrendous home record in front of goal of only four in ten matches this season, and have only just emerged from a barren patch that few clubs in the world could match. Prior to breaking the curse last week against Mordovia, they had scored just three in 13 matches since mid-September, winning once, and have not scored for six straight home matches. So why on earth am I pushing for a goalscoring bet?

Well, it’s quite simple really: when you wait this long to break a hoodoo as painful and lengthy as Krylia’s, the utter release is worth more than the statistics on a page. They will be in front of their own fans in Samara for the first time since the autumn too, which will give them a boost. Krylia really do have some quality attacking players, especially Andre-Pierre Gignac’s cousin Yoann Mollo and Gianni Bruno, with some more than capable front men in former Blackpool hitman Sergey Kornilenko. Adis Jahovic has blown hot and cold this season, and after Kornilenko opened the scoring last week he is a dead cert to start up front against Lokomotiv. The visitors have been on good, if not explosive, form of late, and will respond to going behind, but would probably accept a point away from home to keep on track.

Russian Premier League Betting Tips – Gameweek 22

Last Week: 0/3 Winning Bets = 30

Overall Success Rate: 2 out of 9 bets won

OVERALL PROFIT: +£42.10

It’s a game of the narrowest margins: an inch or two can be the difference between losing all three bets or being hailed a visionary, and last week’s results sheet doesn’t look pretty, but it was oh so close… Now I’ve made my bed by promising a treble every week, I will have to lie in it, but last round saw Terek fail to beat Ural at home and Dinamo somehow squeeze only their second away win out of a trip to Bashkiria. In hindsight – that horribly inevitable consequence of losing bets – Terek against Ural could have been treated with more suspicion after the hullabaloo surrounding the last two fixtures with match-fixing allegations, but the form book lied to me.

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Jamie Vardy – will he ever stop having a party?

In case you missed it last week, I also started an international betting tips series, which began well by calling Russia to win and over 2.5 goals against Lithuania, and threatened to explode with my best ever call with England v Germany. I went for what I thought was a wildly optimistic draw at half time, England to win at full time, but as it turns out I wasn’t ambitious enough! By the letter of the law it goes down as a lost bet, but calling England to win away to the world champions in a friendly?? Anyway, no time to wallow in self pity, time to roll up my sleeves and deliver some solid tips for this coming week. This time, I really can guarantee some solid returns, as the value in the markets this week is excellent. I would try and spin you some April Fool’s tale about having received inside information relating to some results, but I have a terrible poker face. Even from the other side of a keyboard. Here we go, let’s get back into winning ways.

*        *        *        *        *        *        *        *

Bet 1 Saturday 2 April, Ural v Ufa

Handicap -1 on Ural to win, £10 @ 3/10

Potential Return: £40

I will be driving along the delightful motorway to attend this one, so they’d better bloody well do me proud. The last time I attended Ural before the international break they put on a spectacular show to thrash Anzhi 4-2 with Spartak Gogniev bagging a hattrick, and Ufa are the only side to have conceded as many as Anzhi away from home. Goals are surely in this one for the hosts – only Zenit have scored more at home all season – especially as they have an almost fully fit attack, with only Zambian winger Chisamba Lungu and attacking midfielder Alexander Stavpets doubts.

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Chisamba Lungu has explosive pace, but it’s not worth much on he treatment table

Ufa have lost five of their last eight away games by at least two goals, and haven’t scored more than once since their opening weekend against Spartak. In that run, they have only scored five goals in total, and their top goalscorer all season, Sylvester Igboun, only has three. The bottom five in the league table are separated by four points, and with Ufa sandwiched right in the middle of that mêlée they can hardly relax and produce free-flowing attacking football, even if they were capable of it. The cherry on the cake would be if former Arsenal and Wolves midfielder Emmanuel Frimpong came through the mixed zone – then I could chat about Russian testicles…

Bet 2 Saturday 2 April & Sunday 3 April

Treble on Ural to beat Ufa, Terek to beat Anzhi, Zenit to beat CSKA, £10 @ 21/5

Potential Return: £52

Ok, ok, I know it might be putting two of my three eggs in one basket by including an Ural victory in two bets, but the value is ridiculous 23/20 for that result alone. Ufa are not as much of a lost cause as Anzhi, but since early October they have been without their influential captain in midfield, Azamat Zaseev, and Emmanuel Frimpong has been a disappointing since arriving last summer. Terek to beat Anzhi is the nap of the weekend without a shadow of a doubt, and the fierce rivalry between the Dagestanis and the Chechens will only intensify the atmosphere further.

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With this man in your side, you’ve always got a chance

The biggest match of the weekend, however, is easily Zenit against CSKA in St Petersburg. The two most expensively-assembled teams clash with three of the league’s top four scorers on show, but the momentum is with Zenit. Yes, CSKA won their last RPL fixture against Kuban, but that was hardly an accurate barometer, as before that win they had only managed three goals in their previous six league games. Zenit, meanwhile, have scored six in their last two games and have the unquantifiable brilliance of Hulk.

Bet 3 Monday 4 April, Dinamo v Krasnodar

Draw, £10 @ 21/10

Potential Return: £31

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Stanislav Dragun is a real gem of the Russian League

Dinamo have been quietly impressive since the winter break without really pulling up many trees, thanks in no small part to their sensible recruitment and continued faith in their youth players who have won he Russian youth championship the last two years running. Fatos Beciraj looks an aggressive handful with more energy than Pavel Pogrebnyak, but Stanislav Dragun is the finest signing of them all; he is a class above most other holding midfielders in the league, and is able to control play calmly but effectively, and his nous will make Krasnodar’s life that bit more difficult.

The Bulls are a quality outfit, but due to the compact nature of the business end of the league table, they find hems elves right down in 7th place and will be concerned about slipping any further if they wish tot keep their ambitions of European qualification alive. They have scored 12 in their last five away matches, but only scraped a narrow 1-0 win over Mordovia last time on the road, and with the added pressure of the team‘s above will be happy to avoid defeat.

International Betting Tips – Round 1

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RIP Johan Cruyff 

Whether it’s the agony of waiting two weeks for the next installment of my Russian Premier League betting tips, or the mind numbing boredom of international week to get through, I thought I’d liven it up with a round of international tips to help you through till next weekend. I’m nice like that, you see. Both reasons would be perfect understandable – Estonia 0-0 Norway doesn’t exactly set the pulses racing – although there have been some other stories worth telling. Last night the Netherlands paid tribute to the passing of the greatest entertainer Europe has known, Johan Cruyff, as his nation fell to a dramatic 88-minute Blaise Matuidi winner. In Recife, Luis Suárez made his return from his 636-day international ban for biting – once a rat, always a rat – and celebrated his enforced absence with a crucial equaliser to keep Uruguay ahead of their eternal rivals.

Now friendly warm ups are notoriously tricky to navigate, but I have scoured the odds to find the best value for the weekend. Even straight up results can be tough to call in many matches, especially when the approach different nations take to the matches, but dig a little deeper and you can still find value. The plan is to continue this mini series in the run up to the European Championships, maybe even combine it with the finals themselves. Here goes…

Bet 1 Saturday 26 March, Russia v Lithuania

Russia to beat Lithuania, over 2.5 total goals, £10 @ 20/21

Potential Return: £19.52

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Leonid Slutskiy doesn’t always display outward confidence, but gets results – usually…

On paper, a straight match up between these two should be a prime candidate for over 4.5 goals as a minimum, but this is not paper. Russia were in dire straits a year ago under Fabio Capello, and while they recovered remarkably to qualify for the Euros from a seemingly impossible situation, they haven’t blown away any of their opponents (unless you count thrashing Liechtenstein 7-0, which was surely a routine result anyway). Leonid Slutskiy is a notoriously cautious manager, and there is very little to be gained by fielding a full strength side at home against Europe’s 46th best nation not to mention the urgent motivation of the players, so it is unlikely that there will be fireworks.

Lithuania themselves are not quite the whipping boys their ranking suggests though, at least not in terms of goals. Their only two wins away from home in the last five and a half years have come against San Marino and Liechtenstein – only Andorra are ranked lower in Europe – but they have only conceded more than four in a fixture on the road once in 16 years. Given that they have registered a single goal in their last eight games on their travels, the odds are that they won’t be troubling the score on Saturday, which makes over 2.5 goals a safer bet.

Bet 2 Saturday 26 March, Germany v England

Half Time/Full Time Draw/England win, £10 @ 10/1

Potential Return: £110

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Emile Heskey destroys Germany – a once in a lifetime moment

Ok, I admit this one is ever so slightly influenced by a wish to get one over on the World champions in their back yard. Those memories of Emile Heskey (!!!) and co sticking five past them in Munich are still very fresh in the mind of any England follower, but let’s ground ourselves in reality for a moment; a full repeat is about as likely as Leicester winning the… hang on, I mean as likely as Steve McLaren being bought a pint on Tyneside. Eric Dier will be crucial to England’s hopes of keeping out one of the world’s most impressive attacks, but with his club teammates around him he should have enough familiarity to settle.

If we are being brutally honest, Joachim w would look at England as second-rate opponents right now, and few could argue with him. He will not feel under a great deal of pressure faced with a lineup that boasts only 161 international caps between them, and will be certain to try out a few fringe players, especially as he is without a handful of the most experienced members of his squad who brought home the World Cup two years ago. The selection of Dele Alli as the focal point of England’s attacking trident behind the Premier League’s top goalscorer Harry Kane will be a fascinating test of the 19-year-old’s temperament and creativity under pressure. With Jamie Vary on the bench and the industry of Danny Wellbeck from the start, a stalemate at the break is a reasonable call, and after that any outcome is possible.

Bet 3 Tuesday 29 March, Republic of Ireland v Slovakia & France v Russia

Double on Republic of Ireland and France, £10 @ 7/5

Potential Return: £24

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Robbie Keane is Ireland’s all-time top goalscorer with 67 in 143 appearances

My last tip is a relatively low-risk chance to double your stake back, especially given the form of the team‘s involved. The Republic of Ireland claimed a safe 1-0 win over Switzerland, ranked 12th in the world by FIFA, on Friday, and in Slovakia they face a side who have overachieved in recent years but deserve some healthy respect for qualifying quite comfortably ahead of Ukraine. The Irish lack stellar names in their lineup, and are uncertain to be able to call on all-time record goalscorer and LA Galaxy ‘legend’ Robbie Keane, but have won five of their last seven, including over World Champions Germany. At home they are unbeaten in ten matches stretching back 18 months.

Russia are, and probably forever will be, an enigma. Their squad includes some serious creative talent in Alan Dzagoev, Roman Shirokov and Alexander Kokorin, not to mention the European Championship Qualifiers’ third top goalscorer in Artyom Dzyuba, in front of one of Europe’s most experienced and consistent defences. On the other hand, there are some clear issues on a mental level with their attitude and determination. In the last hree years they have only won five away from home, and those were against Moldova, Liechtenstein, Montenegro, Hungary and Luxembourg – hardly the most testing opposition. France come off the back of a spirited win in Amsterdam and have one of the most promising squads that will feature at their home tournament this summer.

 

Russian Premier League Betting Tips – Gameweek 21

Last Week: 2/3 winning bets = +£112.10

Overall Success Rate: 2 out of 6 bets won

OVERALL TOTAL: +£72.10

Get in! That’s much more like it; after a rocky start I’m already £82.10 in profit overall after two of last week’s bets came in. If I was being really cheeky, I could claim a bonus point for calling the next goalscorer on twitter in Ural v Anzhi (Bernard Berisha for the record – never heard of him? You mean you DON’T know every Kosovan winger around??). It would have been three out of three if Igor Denisov’s injury time dipping rocket had dipped an inch or so lower instead of smacking off the bar, so I could almost claim a moral clean sweep.

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“The Good Doctor”, as Jeff Stelling clalled him – Kenny Deuchar, the nearest thing to a sure thing bettors ever had

For the time being however I will be satisfied with just the two bets netting me over £100 between them. In the entirely predictable world of the Russian Premier League, those rare nuggets of reliable odds are like gold dust, so I will do my best to unearth those unseen gems of betting consistency. We won’t be talking of “Gretna to win, Kenny Deuchar to score first” proportions – ah, those glorious days of a Scottish nailed-on treble of Celtic, Rangers and Gretna… However, keep your chin up, follow me, and I’m sure we‘ll find the elusive pot of gold. Guaranteed.*

*not in any way, shape or form guaranteed.

P.s. This week I am on betting advice duty at Russian Football News, so head over there for a look at more tips for this week.

Bet 1    Saturday 19 March

Treble on Ufa to Draw with Dinamo, Terek to beat Ural, CSKA to beat Kuban, £10 @ 4.92/1

Potential Return £59.20

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Emmanuel Frimpong has had a rocky start to his career in Russia – so logically he grabbed some balls to help himself settle in. Erm…

I’ll hold my hands up, I’ve caught the treble bug. After last week’s success, I have decided to go for a Saturday special covering all three games, with Ufa first up to draw with Dinamo. Outside the community of Russian Premier League aficionados, Ufa will be a name that conjures up precisely nothing to the casual observer, other than being the home of former Arsenal midfielder and testicle grabber Emmanuel Frimpong. They are in fact a very capable outfit, despite limping along on paper in the relegation playoff places. In Oleksandr Zinchenko they have an electric winger who creates chances out of nothing, and they’ve only conceded 12 at home this season, fewer than third placed Spartak. Dinamo meanwhile are incapable of finishing off matches, having won once since August and only once away all season.

Terek are my tip for European qualification this season. They have a ludicrously well drilled defence under Rashid Rakhimov which has only let in seven at home where they are unbeaten, whereas entertaining as they are, Ural have conceded the second highest number of goals in the league. My heart says Ural after their stirring 4-2 win last week, but my head says Terek. CSKA to beat Kuban is not quite as foregone a conclusion as it would have been a few months ago, but they still have too much to offer going forward, while Kuban are still battling to get out of the relegation places.

Bet 2    Sunday 20 March, Krylia v Zenit

Over 4.5 total goals £10 @ 6/1

Potential Returns: £70

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Hulk – would you mess with this man?

After the spring season’s first weekend which saw the season’s lowest league-wide tally of eleven goals, everybody seems to have shaken off the winter rust, in particular Zenit. Last week’s match against Rubin showed that they are far from infallible, but the sheer volume of chances they create from all angles means they are nailed on to win this one. Six goals were in the Rubin match, and while home advantage accounted for some of their confidence, Rubin are a much stronger proposition than Krylia. The hosts haven‘t scored in their last five at home, a run stretching back to the middle of September, but they can now boast the lively Gianni Bruno as well as the fully fit Yoann Mollo, so will aways be potentially ready to threaten.

It was tempting to go for over 5.5 goals at the huge price of 16/1, but 6/1 for over 4.5 still offers an excellent return. The worrying statistic is Zenit’s winless run away from home now standing at six matches, or since August, but they have a whole new momentum and a much improved squad – already the strongest in the league – which is also free of the distraction of European competition. The assumption is that Zenit will win comfortably, but I wouldn’t be surprised if Krylia contributed to the scoreline.

Bet 3    Sunday 20 March, Rubin v Mordovia

Rubin to win & Over 2.5 goals, £10 @ 9/4

Potential Return: £32.50

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The brand spanking new Kazan Arena hosts Rubin v Mordovia, and hopefully over 2.5 goals…

This one is like stealing candy from a baby. Ok, I might look very stupid if it remains a low scoring affair, but I have to have at least one safe bet as a back up and this one is fantastic value. Mordovia are a terrible side in deep, deep trouble; bottom of the table, no wins away from home, the only club not make any winter signings while two key players left. The only ray of light is that they have a respectable defensive record (12 conceded in nine away games) for a side in their position, but statistics won’t count for much on a different surface at the Kazan Arena.

Rubin were enterprising against the champions Zenit last week despite falling to a 4-2 defeat, especially as Marko Devic returned and instantly sparked the attack into life. They’ve won four of their last six at home, where six out of this season’s nine games have produced three or more goals. My gut tells me there will be more than three, but for the sake of building a profit I have decided to keep it to only over 2.5. The value is fantastic though, and this is my nap of the week.

Motorway Musings Special: Solitude, Darkness and Football

I‘m one of those people who occasionally enjoys his own company. Don’t get me wrong, I love a great evening with friends, or even betteplay time with my two girls, but for me sometimes theres real value to be had out of utter uninterrupted solace. Whether it is to plan a project or just to switch off and think of nothing at all – if you consider that thought for a moment, how many minutes a day do you think you have with absolutely zero noise of any kind? – those moments can be therapeutic for my mind.

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Recognise this old man? I almost didn’t a decade ago, but thanks to a fat Italian, I knew I’d seen Paolo Di Canio. For the record, he was rubbish on the day…

For example, attending a football match. You can often meet like-minded people in the terraces, but you can just as easily be stuck next to an utter bore who thinks for some strange reason you would be fascinated to listen to whatever drivel he spews forth for two hours. From time to time I find it easier to go it alone and take in all the sights and sounds by myself.

I’ll give you the perfect example: when I arrived in Italy for a year of *cough* hard study, my first weekend was looking very empty as the induction week at the university was on Monday and I had all day on Sunday to kill. Naturally I had researched the delightful town of Ferrara before I came, and knew the address of the stadium where the local side Società Polisportivo Ars et Labor, or SPAL for short, played.

Now I could have waited till the next home game, by when I would surely have met someone else with a passing interest in the game, but for the first impression I wanted complete concentration and freedom to explore what my senses could offer. As it turned out, there on the pitch was none other than Paolo Di Canio playing for a now-defunct fourth tier club from Rome, but had I not been on my own I would almost certainly not have leaned to the obese chain smoker to my right and asked if it was really him. Like most neutrals, I loved Di Canio when he was in England, and here was confirmation that I was watching him live for the first and almost certainly last time.

At the end of the match as I was making my way down the stands the entire crowd of 3,000 began turning towards me and cheering. A nice touch perhaps, but a little odd considering not one of them knew me. The large chap explained it was in fact for the flash git behind me – who also happened to be the club’s striker who had been injured but had chosen to watch the match with the hardcore fans and not in an corporate box. Again, I’d never have known that if I’d gone to the game with someone else.

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I travelled 340km to watch Ural v Dinamo, but these guys came from Novouralsk – a tiny bit closer…

A few months later I got separated from my travelling companion on a mammoth away trip to Torino and Tuscany in Milan train station, but as a result ended up dining al fresco with the agent who discovered Cristiano Ronaldo for Fiorentina long before Manchester United, his friend and a gorgeous 18-year-old Italian girl in a Tuscan village before being offered VIP seats to watch SPAL. That’s a whole other story though that I will tell you another time, but another perfect justification of going solo.

Russian Road Trip

What’s all this about watching football got to do with with motorways I hear you ask? Well, other than the most dedicated fans of clubs based at far ends of England, not many people would have done what I did last week, twice, which directly involved both. My home is in Tyumen where there is a second tier club side who I follow regularly, but the nearest Premier League side, Ural Sverdlovskaya Oblast, is based in Ekaterinburg which is, if you believe local people, ‘just next door’. Ahem. By next door they mean 340 kilometres and about five hours drive away.

I cover Russian football for two brilliant websites – Russian Football News and Futbolgrad and have managed to wangle a press pass for Ural, so last Monday I decided to travel by car. Back in August, I had gone for the first time by train, but the only affordable cabin was the horrendously cramped ‘platzkart’ in which my feet came over the end of the bunk by about a foot. The timetable was not exactly convenient, and it cost me about 4,000 rubles (only about £40 in today’s money) for the return journey. A mite over a full tank of petrol however, which sets me back about 1,400 rubles, would get me there and back conveniently with plenty of leg space, my own choice of music volume and, crucially, private time to myself.

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The delightful confines of platzkart – irony intended

With kickoff at a comfortable 4.30pm, I decided to set off after breakfast to give plenty of time to negotiate the city of Ekaterinburg itself. Home to around two million people, this city will be the easternmost venue for the 2018 World Cup lying on the border between Europe and Asia, and had a starring role in 20th century history as the place where the last Romanovs were executed in 1917. It is also, however, famous for having some of the worst roads within a city known to man.

There is a saying here that goes something like this: “There are two main problems in Russia; idiots, and roads. One caused the other.” The classic chicken and egg. Tyumen actually has the best roads in Russia, according to Tyumen residents. My father-in-law works as a senior road engineer and assures me this is true, and he’s not a man prone to spinning large tales, but for six years I had thought this must be a slightly exaggerated claim. The thing is, in all my time here I had never ventured on roads beyond 30 kilometres from my city, so I couldn’t offer much of an informed opinion on this matter.

In a previous post I likened drivers here to Playstation gamers, always trying to ‘beat’ the next car; whether they all play Gran Turismo or Crazy Taxi in their heads is anyone’s guess, suffice to say most are clinically mad. Out in the countryside, however, there is a strange camaraderie that exists between drivers that is conspicuous by its absence in the city. To help each other avoid being caught out for edging over the speed limit, cars will flash their headlights twice to warn oncoming traffic of an imminent police car on duty that they have just passed. It was oddly heartwarming that utter strangers, and let’s be honest, probably idiotic drivers, would be so thoughtful, and I gladly returned the favour to others later on.

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Clear blue skies and billions of trees make for a pleasant drive

The road to Ekaterinburg was, I had been assured, much improved and was free of the road rage that develops naturally on city roads. The route was simple; one motorway, no turnings, all the way. In the early morning once the initial stage of the journey has been cleared, it is quite quite a pleasant experience. The sun is behind you as you drive west, bathing the wide fields of snow with a light sparkle, and there is precious little traffic to disrupt you. There are a handful of villages to negotiate in the first 60-70 km, mostly relatively calm and drab, but for the majority of the way it is simple and you can delve into your mind to relax. That personal headspace that is so rare today.

The speed limit for these roads is officially 90 kph, which is not especially fast when you think about it, but there is is a good reason for this: nobody seems to know, or at least respect, this fact. As is so often the case in my experience when asking Russian people questions, multiple answers arose when I enquired to confirm the legal limit. “I think about 115,” said Sergey, my friendly attendant at the petrol station. “Or maybe 105… no wait, it’s between 90 and 110!” Great, that really helps I thought. If there’s one thing of don’t want to do, it’s get on the wrong side of the transport police with limited language skills and an even more limited wallet. Before you ask, yes I have bribed a policeman before…

I knew there would be plenty of policemen stationed along the motorway as it was a public holiday and lots of people would be expected to drive the same route as me. In total I passed 11 policemen over the entire 700 km round trip, and got stopped once – 2 km from home. I hadn’t done anything wrong at all – it was just a routine document check – but it didn’t instill me with confidence.

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Russia – it’s quite big. I travelled about 2% of its length, and it took 5 hours 

Once I got settled in though, the road was simple enough, and as I trailed an HGV to help keep my speed in check, I drank in the beauty of the snow-capped fir and birch trees lining my way. Some idiots aside who flew past at 130 kph, it gave me time to contemplate the sheer vastness of Russia. Here I was barely crossing a fingernail’s width on the map, and yet it was about to be the longest road journey I’d ever taken. People often ask me why on earth I came to Russia, and why I stayed once I got here, and I realised that moments like this were one of the reasons. Nobody else for miles around, with scenery to adorn Christmas cards – lovely.

Ekaterinburg

Then Ekaterinburg happened. My word, those are the biggest potholes I’ve ever seen – and I’ve been on a truck journey into the Amazon on mud tracks that were barely passable. Small children could have hidden comfortably in them. And worst of all, despite the snow having either completely melted or been cleared away (I think the former is much more likely), there were almost no road markings at all, which locals took to be an invitation to make up their own lanes and rules.

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That tall, white structure in the distance, visible from the stadium, is abandoned and covered in graffiti

I don’t want people to get the wrong impression about the city; I have only seen the route from the motorway to the northwest of the cenre where the SKB Bank Arena is, but the buildings and general environment were decidedly dog-eared. On a future trip I will endeavour to discover more about the history and architecture of Ekaterinburg, but this was not the time: Dinamo Moscow awaited. Google Maps guided me to the stadium, and after a much needed stretch of the legs I enjoyed a tense match that finished 1-1, even getting an exclusive interview with goalscorer Gerson Acevedo.

After filing my feature on the match, the journey back began at about 9pm in the pitch black; the sunshine and adventure of the morning was one thing, but the dead of Siberian night is another entirely. I repeated my tactic of tailing a truck, which was vital to avoid being caught out by the tricky changes in direction that the motorway took. A complete lack of markings to indicate the edge of the road would have been a bit hairy were it not for those two wonderful red tail lights guiding the way. Unfortunately, they began to swerve a bit too far over to the hard shoulder after a while, lurching back onto the road just in time – the driver was clearly falling asleep. Deciding that it was far safer to get past than wait behind him, I carefully waited for a rare patch of street lighting to overtake before painstakingly edging my way home.

At 2am, with the help of an opened window to keep me alert, I finally arrived back home 20 hours after waking up. To say it had taken the energy out of me is an understatement; rarely had my bed felt so welcoming. My journey had been far from spectacular – one writing colleague undertook a 15 hour, 1,400 km overnight slog from Moscow to Krasnodar in the south two day before – but in my own way I felt like I’d achieved something. So what was the first thing I thought of when I woke up? Let’s do it all again of course…