The first leg of the Europa League Round of 16 takes place on Thursday, and Newcastle United will be traveling to Moscow to take on Anzhi Makhachkala. We reached out to Andy Shenk, an Anzhi supporter and former resident of Dagestan, to give us some background on the team. I hope you'll find this read as informative as I did.
1. Hey, Andy. Can you explain how and why you came to be an Anzhi supporter? What are the most attractive features of the club for you?
Hey, Robert. Thanks for giving me an opportunity to chat with you. I'm very excited that Anzhi were drawn against Newcastle, given the history and prominence of your club. Anzhi really crave international media exposure at this stage in the club's development and playing Newcastle is an excellent opportunity for that.
As for the first question... I'm American, but my parents moved our family to Dagestan (Makhachkala, Anzhi's home city, is the capital of Dagestan) in 1996, where they ran a non-profit. I moved back to the US in 2004, but kept a strong interest in Russian football, especially the Russian national team and Spartak and Anzhi.
In 2009, I studied in Moscow for five months. That's when my passion for the Russian league and Anzhi really took off. Anzhi gained promotion to the Premier League that season, after an eight-year absence. I didn't get to any matches, but when I got back to the US, I continued to keep up with the team. Since 2011, I've been able to watch most matches over the Internet. I also saw them in the person for the first time in Moscow last fall.
I support Anzhi because I grew up near Makhachkala and identify strongly with the region. Anzhi are a lightning-rod club in Russia. Most football fans outside of the Caucasus, not surprisingly, detest the team. It's not just about their riches, however. Ethnic and religious tension is very high in most of Russia, with Dagestan and Chechnya, two Muslim republics in the Caucasus Mountains, the focal point, due to the large number of people who have moved to Moscow and other Russian cities from the area. The Russian media and public, not surprisingly, often stereotype the region unfairly and supporting Anzhi is one way to remain united with Dagestan and, hopefully, help change people's perceptions for the better.
I'm also attracted to the club's commitment beyond the football pitch. They opened a youth academy in the fall, have nearly completed construction of Anzhi Arena, a beautiful 30,000-seat stadium outside of Makhachkala where tickets will cost just £2-10, and help out a number of charities, both in Dagestan and beyond. The players feature Kerimov's children's foundation - Give Life - on their jerseys and Roberto Carlos often holds football workshops for kids in cities where Anzhi play their away matches.
No doubt, the club isn't perfect and charitable efforts are often simply a way of generating positive press, but for many in Dagestan, Anzhi are one of the only institutions that gives back to society without asking for much in return.
2. Can you briefly explain for those that aren't aware why this first match will be played in Moscow instead of Dagestan?
The reason Anzhi can't host Europa League matches in Makhachkala is mostly tied to hostile Russian and international media coverage of Dagestan. Since violence broke out in neighboring Chechnya in 1994, Dagestan has also gotten a very bad rap. In 2001, when Anzhi first qualified for European competition, their UEFA Cup opponent, Glasgow Rangers, refused to travel to Makhachkala, citing security concerns. In the end, UEFA opted for a one-match neutral site tie in Poland. Rangers, on a side note, are still quite unpopular in Dagestan and a lot of fans celebrated last year when they were dropped to Scotland's fourth division.
So what's it really like in Dagestan? Is it actually violent? Yes, there are some militants in the republic who attack Russian military personnel and policemen. Liquor stores and other businesses that clash with Islamic morals have also occasionally suffered threats and violence. On the other hand, random acts of violence are very rare and the threat at a football match is almost non-existent, given the immense amount of security present at the stadium.
In fact, in 22 years of playing in the Russian league and Russian Cup, there hasn't been a single act of violence at an Anzhi match in Dagestan, not counting a few minor incidents between home and away fans. I can guarantee that the first European club to play in Dagestan will receive the most lavish reception any football club has ever received in European competition. Dagestanis pride themselves on their hospitality and will do everything they can to make a good impression.
UEFA, nonetheless, banned Anzhi last summer from hosting Europa League matches in Dagestan for the 2012/2013 season because they felt the region was too violent. In January, they did agree to send a committee to Dagestan this spring to investigate the situation on the ground (something they didn't do when they made their decision last summer) and the club is hopeful they will be permitted to host European competition in Dagestan next season, especially with their new stadium, located outside of the city and much closer to the airport, now complete.
3. Anzhi sit 2 points behind league leaders CSKA Moscow and league play starts up again on Sunday. Where do the club's priorities lie? Are you afraid of rust, since their last match was the draw with Hannover 96?
The biggest priority is Champions League qualification next season, which means finishing in the top two of the Russian league. Zenit trail Anzhi by only 3 points in third, and will be improved from their shaky performance in the fall. With CSKA able to focus exclusively on the league, it's a difficult task, but certainly manageable. Their first five domestic matches are against weak competition, so they should be able to ease into the Russian league without any trouble.
Aside from CL qualification, advancing as far as possible in the Europa League is the next priority. The club craves media attention, as I stated earlier, and the Europa League playoffs generate more publicity than any league match does.
As a fan, I hope the club can win one trophy this season, whether the league, Russian Cup (where they've advanced to the quarterfinals), or Europa League. You never know how long something good will last, so it's important to strike when you have the opportunity.
Rust is a big concern in the Europa League. The Anzhi fan base is split on how difficult it will be to advance past Newcastle, but I'm personally quite nervous. We just escaped against Hannover and if we concede in Moscow, the return leg will be nerve-wracking. That said, Anzhi's talent up front gives the club a chance against just about any opponent.
4. From afar, it looks like Guus Hiddink has had quite the positive impact on the club. How has he been able to lift Anzhi up to where they are?
Hiddink is revered throughout Russia for taking the national team to the Euro 2008 semifinals, the nation's best result since the Soviet Union reached the finals in 1988. Just as he did with Russia, he's fostered a very positive, confident mentality on the team. The Russian press writes regularly about the lack of pretentiousness from Anzhi's big stars and a lot of that is due to Hiddink's ability to manage big personalities.
On the pitch, the team has only had a few statement matches or dominating performances under Hiddink, but he knows how to get results, and, most importantly, avoid major hiccups. In 2011, prior to his arrival, but after massive investment in the club, the team was very streaky and dropped points regularly to bottom of the table clubs.
He's also adept at sharing playing time and giving youngsters a chance. Oleg Shatov, Arseniy Logashov, Fedor Smolov, and Kamil Agalarov took steps forward last fall when little was expected from them. Shatov and Smolov, in particular, are expected to be a big part of the Russian national team in the future.
5. Samuel Eto'o is the obvious name that most people will know. Is he as good for Anzhi as the numbers suggest?
I'm not an expert when it comes to evaluating play on the field, but Eto'o is unquestionably the team's leader and a constant threat to score or create a scoring opportunity. He often looked frustrated on the field when he joined back in August 2011, but he seems more comfortable now with Anzhi's rising talent level and improved understanding between teammates. He has 10 assists in 31 matches this season, whereas he gave only four in 22 matches last season. Though goals are down, that's partly due to Lacina Traore's impressive 15 goals in 28 appearances.
I never saw him play before he joined Anzhi, so I can't say whether he's regressed from his time at Inter or Barcelona, but he's still the strongest player technically in the Russian league. He doesn't appear to simply be along for the ride, either, but invested in Anzhi's success and very responsive to the fans.
6. What do you expect out of new signing Willian?
Willian gives Anzhi the balance up front they've been craving for a long time. He'll help take some of the pressure off Eto'o, who can drop back now where's more comfortable. The Hannover tie and exhibition matches suggest Anzhi would like to play a 4-3-3, with Willian, Eto'o, and Boussoufa up front, Jucilei, Diarra, and Akhmedov in the center, and Zhirkov, Joao Carlos, Spahic/Ewerton, and Eschenko at the back. Eschenko and Zhirkov are excellent widebacks who can help out during attacks, while the holding midfielders are all tough, physical, skilled dribblers. That leaves Willian and Boussoufa much more free to create, with Eto'o or Traore their primary target.
Willian struggled in the away leg against Hannover, but was excellent in Moscow, notching an assist in the first half. The combination of Zhirkov (who, incidentally, couldn't play in the return leg in Germany) and Willian on the left wing is a very exciting prospect going forward.
7. How has the club gone about replacing Christopher Samba, who left for QPR this January?
The centerback position is Anzhi's biggest weakness right now and plenty of people on the club expressed their frustration at his unexpected departure. They signed Emir Spahic from Sevilla last week, but he won't be able to play in the Europa League. Against Hannover, they went with Ewerton Almeida, a former Sporting Braga defender, who hadn't played since last August due to injury. Ewerton looked shaky paired with Joao Carlos and I hope that Hiddink replaces him with Rasim Tagirbekov against Newcastle.
Tagirbekov captained Anzhi before Roberto Carlos and Eto'o arrived in 2011 and has played for the team since 2003. He's appeared in 28 matches this season, including nine in the Europa League and is a big, bruising centreback who's been on the fringes of the Russian national team.
Either way, though, nobody will be a perfect replacement for Samba, and if Anzhi struggle this spring, it will almost certainly be due to the lack of depth at centerback. Joao Carlos, who shared time with Tagirbekov in the fall, is also no rock at the back.
8. Tell us about the blog you're working on starting.
It's only an idea at this point, but I hope to create a space for English-speaking fans to gather and discuss the team and also learn about Anzhi's history and Dagestani culture. The club did exist before Suleiman Kerimov arrived, placing fourth in Russia's top flight in 2000 and advancing to the finals of the Russian Cup in 2001 and it will be important for the team to maintain its ties to Makhachkala and Dagestan even as it hopes to expand in popularity throughout Europe and the rest of the world. Since I grew up there and speak English, I think I have a unique opportunity in that regard.
Thanks for having me on here! Good luck to you guys! It should be a very enjoyable encounter and I'll be rooting for you to do well in the Premier League the rest of the season.