Arsenal progress unstoppable
While Arsene Wenger is fiercely criticised for his team's stagnation in recent years, the Gunners fans, who somewhat nervously await the tricky fixture at Fenerbahce in the Champions League play-offs on Wednesday night, will probably find it amusing that a club sporting the same name are making incredible progress on their way to creating history. We are not talking about Arsenal de Sarandi, who sensationally won the Clausura in Argentina last year, but Arsenal Tula.
Never heard of them? Well, even football lovers in Russia didn't know a thing about the team a couple of years ago. It all changed with the arrival of Dmitri Alenichev -- the only Russian ever to lift the Champions League trophy -- who is fast proving himself as the brightest coaching talent in his country.
The level of his success is nothing short of astonishing. What's more, he has managed to achieve excellent results with an attractive blend of attacking, short-passing football, which was long associated with Spartak Moscow, and is, incidentally, also Wenger's philosophy at Arsenal.
As a player, Alenichev was well known around the continent. He scored as Jose Mourinho's Porto beat Monaco 3-0 in the 2004 Champions League final, en route to lifting the aforementioned silverware. A year before that, he netted in a 3-2 win against Celtic in the UEFA Cup final. A big fan of former mentor Mourinho, Dmitri has stated numerous times that he considers the Portuguese to be the best coach in the world and "his second father".
Mourinho reciprocated the compliment when he attended Alenichev's farewell game in May 2008 in Moscow, saying: "Alenichev was a special player for me. He played a very important part in my career, and I will never forget him."
Alenichev's career as a midfielder had effectively ended two years previous to that reunion with his old coach and in very unusual circumstances. A Spartak player through and through, he won four league titles with the red-and-whites in the 90s before departing for Roma and returned to his beloved club in 2004, only to find the Moscow side abandoning its traditions.
Spartak's style was always about aesthetic football, preferring speed of thought to speed of running, especially in the days of legendary coach Konstantin Beskov, whose ethos was maintained by Oleg Romantsev. But in the 2000s the philosophy was abandoned by Latvian coach Aleksandr Starkov, who put an emphasis on the more physical aspects of the game; Alenichev strongly disagreed.
As a result, Starkov refused to use his best player, and their relationship finally reached a tipping point in April 2006. "I am ashamed with Spartak these days," Alenichev said. "For such a great club it is unacceptable to play such football," he opined in a sensational interview published by the Sport-Express newspaper. He never played again, even though Starkov was eventually sacked.
That devotion to Spartak's principles has been Alenichev's guiding light since the first day he was appointed as coach of amateur club Arsenal Tula in November 2011, following a short and unsuccessful spell with Russia's youth team.
That was less than two years ago, when Arsenal were emerging from the remains of a small club that went bankrupt. Tula is a city with a population of about 500,000, less than 200 kilometres south of Moscow, but totally lacking any football traditions. The choice seemed bizarre for a man like Alenichev, but the 40-year-old had a vision.
The new coach invited his old Spartak friends to play in the amateur league. Yegor Titov, one of the most beloved red-and-white stars of recent times, arrived, together with former internationals Vadim Yevseev, Yuriy Kovtun, Dmitriy Khlestov, Vladimir Beschastnykh and keeper Aleksandr Filimonov. The fans went wild with enthusiasm, and more than 13,000 spectators gathered to witness lowly matches against other amateur outfits.
Most of the Spartak oldies were released in the summer of 2012, when Arsenal received a professional licence and started playing in Russia's third division. Alenichev built a completely new squad from anonymous players, with the major exception of Filimonov. The 39-year-old keeper, who famously dropped an easy ball from Andriy Shevchenko into his own net in the dying minutes of the crucial international derby with Ukraine in 1999 and had never really recovered from the blunder, is enjoying football again with Alenichev.
Alenichev took his new-look squad to promotion at the first time of asking and more was to follow. This season Arsenal have taken Russia's second division by storm. They have won seven of the first nine games, drawing the other two and scoring 22 goals in the process. Arsenal sit atop the league table, their football is exquisite and their goals are sometimes of breathtaking quality - such as those scored in the 5-1 win over SKA-Energiya Khabarovsk a month ago.
Striker Aleksandr Kutyin, who netted four in that game, is a 27-year-old journeyman who never played in the top division. Under Alenichev he has become a superstar, as has 29-year-old Yevgeniy Savin, who was once considered a very promising prospect before losing the plot completely.
Arsenal's second successive promotion is very much on the cards, and next season Alenichev could find himself in the Premier League, playing against his old club Spartak. His devotion to the Tula project was confirmed last week when he rejected an offer to replace Gadzhi Gadzhiev at FC Krylia Sovetov Samara in the Russian top flight.
"We want to play the Spartak football," Alenichev said when explaining his philosophy in a recent interview published at Championat.ru. "Of course, we can't replicate the great Spartak side of the 90s, but it is possible to play well even with our squad. We succeed sometimes, and the players are enjoying themselves. We are playing the game that pleases spectators. That's the way it should be, even if we will lose sometimes. The players will get pleasure even in the games they lost. When you love what you are doing, the results will come."
Alenichev's dream is to coach Spartak. The red-and-white fans now have another Spartak legend, Valeriy Karpin, on the bench, but many of them can't wait for Alenichev to take the reins in the future. He looks destined for it, and it is impossible for it not to happen one day. If the current rate of progress continues, there are few limits to what he can achieve.
Most Russian players failed when trying their luck in Serie A and the Premier League. Alenichev, who had a moderately good season at Roma and flourished at Porto, was different. He is a thorough and thoughtful professional with great interpersonal skills, who learned a lot from Fabio Capello and Mourinho during his playing days.
As a coach he could also flourish outside the borders of Russia. In a few years' time, he could be the man to replace Wenger at the biggest Arsenal of them all. Stranger things have happened.