Another post-season break draws to an end for the players. Yet for Daniil, he had little time off. Knowing what his players were capable of if he could get them firing, he knew he needed that final bit of quality added to the squad to make a real push for glory in the new season.
Although Alania, Ufa & Baltika all got promoted to the Russian Premier Division, they were replaced with just as strong teams; Torpedo Moscow, Knimki and Knetekhimik all dropped down a tier and were fighting to go back up at the first time of asking. Predicted to finish 2nd, 1st and 6th respectively, the media backed them to do well this season. Whilst Daniil’s boys were predicted to finish 8th, it was an incentive to prove the doubters wrong.
A strong ending to the season gave Daniil the belief that one or two good bits of business, on top of what he has already, would see them push for a playoff spot at the very least. Who knows, perhaps he could go all the way in a title push? With that being said, Daniil brought in numerous players on loan, but the following 5 earned their contracts:
Alex Matsukatov & Maxim Eleev both joined from the affiliate side CSKA Moscow, with Eleev only costing £50,000. Both reasonable sound footballers gave more depth to the squad in areas of the park Daniil was mostly concerned about, and with little spent, Daniil was chuffed with his two new recruitments. Evgeny Latyshonok initially came in as a backup to Petr Kosarevskiy, but Petr decided that the grass was greener in the Premier League when Alania came calling with a bid of £230,000. Evgeny is more than capable to hold his own in this division. After all, he did sign from Baltika who let him go instead of holding onto him for backup. Danijel Miskic left division rivals Ural at the end of his contract and comes in naturally as cover for either Aleinikov or Martusevich. A bit of an older signing, but with an older head comes more experienced, and Daniil was not going to turn his nose up to that opportunity. However, his lack of determination was a worrying aspect so Daniil would be hoping to move him on and make a tidy profit to keep the board happy. Finally, Daniil’s cherry on the top. Luka Ilić. The ex-Manchester City youth prospect swapped Manchester for Khabarovsk at the end of his contract and is the real stand out player in the final third. With release clauses in his contract of a million at the least, Daniil knew that if this worked out well, the club would financially benefit from this in the not so distant future.
Sticking to the formation that bore fruits for Khabarovsk last season, Daniil introduced hot prospect Denis Prokopiev to the first team following his loan spell. A couple of tweaks in positional roles and the familiar formation had a new look to it that would cause problems for any side in the division:
Daniil was confident of his chances this season and really wanted to send out a statement of intent to his competition. The right transfer recruitment had been performed to not only bulk up the squad but to improve the squad.
Unfortunately for Daniil, there was to be no repeat of last season’s luck of the draw. After romping to a 5-0 victory over KamAZ in the first round, SKA Khabarovsk was given a group that contained Strogino Moscow of the Russian Football National League 2, and Premier League opposition Krylia Sovetov. Khabarovsk and Krylia were the first to play in the 3 team group. And it was a game that had it all for the spectators. Raúl Ruidiaz put the visitors 1 up inside the first 3 minutes before Dymtro Lytvyn equalised in his final game for the club before moving to Ufa for £110,000. Youngster Denis Prokopiev put the hosts ahead in the second half before Ruidiaz converted a late penalty to take the game to penalties. With the score tied at 4-4, left-back Smirnov missed the crucial penalty for Khabarovsk, before Latyshonok saved the potential winning Krylia penalty. Prokopiev and Grachov both kept their cool before Latyshonok stepped up to save the sudden death penalty to take home the bonus point against Premier League opposition.
Knowing that a victory over Strogino would be enough to see them through, Daniil named a relatively strong team to get the job done nice and early. However, it was not to be as straightforward as that, as Barkov gave Daniil the lead in the 15th minute, and Khabarovsk never killed the game off until injury time in the second half. The job was done – unconvincingly – and into the fifth round, Daniil’s men go.
Last season Khabarovsk were given a luckier draw against Rotor, but it was not to be the same this year. Dinamo Moscow awaited the First Division side, and Daniil knew he would be up against it playing last season’s league winners. A 16 minute Luis Suárez hattrick (the Colombian) was enough to see off the minnows, and despite getting one back before halftime, there was no way back into the game.
The Kubok FNL Cup kicked off after the winter shutdown, and Daniil was looking forward to seeing his players get minutes under the belt after the time off. Although this was the crucial thing for Daniil, he did want to see a performance in this cup, as Khabarovsk was given a promising group with Textilschik Ivanovo, Metallurg Lipetsk and Volgar.
However, this was not to be the case as Khabarovsk exited the group bottom, with one draw and two defeats. Daniil was furious as it was a favourable group, but knowing his league campaign was the most important thing, he was happy to let it go under the radar slightly.
Krasnodar-2 were then waiting in the Loser Fourth Round semi-final, and yet another teeth pulling performance saw Daniil lose again, this time in a penalty shootout. It was becoming embarrassing at this rate, but thankfully a 2-0 victory over Ural in the third-place playoff to end Daniil’s woes. Certainly one cup campaign to forget in a hurry for the young manager!
Russian First Divsion
A tremendous start to the league ended at the hands of Metallurg Lipetsk in a poor showing and that then set the pace for the league campaign to follow. Losing ground in any title race is bad enough, but doing so in the manner Daniil’s side did was unforgiving. September was by far the most consistent month for Khabarovsk, recording an impressive 2-0 victory over Khimki, but it was not enough at this point of the season. Spartak M-2 and Yenisey were just recording win after win and not letting up.
The 3-2 defeat against Spartak M-2 was the hardest one to take, and that really summed up an up and down October. Not gaining much ground on those setting the pace, Daniil knew that he had to focus on his own results and pray for miracles elsewhere. After all, he did still have these sides to play again and could look to close the distance.
Daniil was left mulling over the first half performance throughout the full winter shutdown. He knew that the team offensively were outperforming everyone – only Nizhniy Novgorod had outscored Khabarovsk at this point of the season. However, keeping the goals out at the other end was more problematic. It was significantly higher than those around him and the complete opposite to the form shown last season.
A strong performance against Tom in October then projected Daniil’s side onto a terrific run – recording one defeat and two draws in their next eight matches before the winter break. Notching up wins against Torpedo Moscow, Yenisey and Metallurg Lipetsk, Daniil was able to keep some pressure on Spartak M-2 whilst closing the distance on those chasing. It was going to be a tough few months till May, but Daniil was not going to back down from a fight.
Something needed to change to ensure Khabarovsk had a fighting chance, but Daniil was trying to figure out what. Does he need to delve into the market once again, and see what defensive quality he could bring to the team? Does he go back to the drawing board and rethink the tactics, perhaps playing more aggressively and on the front foot to try and keep the ball far away from his goal? Perhaps both?
Daniil utilised the transfer window and brought in 9 new faces for a total of £391,850, with some being talents for the future:
Vladislav Galkin joins Khabarovsk from Dinamo-2 Moscow. 21 years of age, and the youngster can play anywhere in the final third, helped with his ability to play with both feet. A deal worth £120,000 was enough to prize him away from Dinamo-2 Moscow, and he has real potential to be a key man in this side in the months to come. Daniil knew that Galkin would not solve the defensive problems, but recent injuries in the final third meant Daniil was required to get back up in, and Galkin is more than just any old backup. Kirill Shvagirev sealed a move from Fakel-M to Khabarovsk for £100,000 and then immediately joined Lada on loan till the end of the season. A wide play that lacks the natural attributes a winger should have, under the guidance of Ilić, Shvagirev could certainly learn a lot during the summer pre-season and be a bright spark in the years to come.
Zaubek Trufanov joins from Amkar for £85,000 and looks to be a solid defensive-minded player. Perhaps better suited to being a more mobile central defender than a fullback that is expected to support attacks, Trufanov will spend the rest of the season with the U18s developing before Daniil takes a look at him and decides if this is one worth pursuing and developing. On the other side, Igor Korobov joins from well-known Chertanovo Moscow for a fee of £32,000. Perhaps more of a technical player than Trufanov, Korobov’s ability to play in midfield is a bonus given his attribute spread. A lot of work to be done here, and like Trufanov, he will spend the remainder of the season with the U18s before Daniil promotes and takes a closer look at him around the first team.
Ilya Martynov was the first deal announced of the window for £27,000 and Daniil believes he has a steal right here. A very mobile central defender with the ability to play football as well, Martynov gives Daniil a completely new dimension in building from the back and has certainly got his best years in front of him. 16-year-old Armenian Ghulinyan follows Korobov in swapping Chertanovo for Khabarovsk. £10,750 was enough to see the side from Moscow part ways with an up and coming talent. Significant work to be done for Ghulinyan to walk into the side, but with plenty of training and development, he could be a gem in the not so distant future.
Moroz and Motovilov left Gomel and Kaluga for £10,000 and £5,000 respectively, and both provide some youth foundations for the central area of defence. Motovilov went back out on loan to Kaluga for the remainder of the season, but both young players have plenty of work to do, along with Vadim Gaus joining from Arsenal Tula.
Daniil was satisfied with his youth recruitment in January. Perhaps one or two bodies more would have fully satisfied him before the final stretch of the season, but enough admin work was done. It was time to take this back to the football pitch and drive home the message to the players. We need to be more of a defensive unit for the home straight.
Daniil was a bit on edge ahead of the league resuming. After woeful performances in the Kubok FNL, he wasn’t sure what side would take to the field. Would the team throw him under a bus? He was nervous for this opening stretch of games, one slip up could see teams from below really put pressure on from now till the end of the season. His increasing reputation could take a beating should his side bottle a finish around the playoff spots. He was determined to ensure this never happened.
A perfect March saw all worries alleviated for Daniil, but the nerves were very much still in existence. Comfortable 2-0 victories over Akron and Khimki were soon followed by nervy back-to-back 4-3 victories over Olimp-Dolgoprudny and Ural, Daniil was starting to grow some grey hair watching his side put him through the mill. Fortunately, the team got the job done on the park, whilst Spartak M-2 had dropped points for the gap to drop to 6. A title race was on the card now.
April was certainly going to be the make or break month, with games against Neftekhimik, Textilschik Ivanovo & Spartak M-2 featuring in the all-important month. Although the gap was 6 points going into April, a 1-1 draw with Neftekhimik saw Spartak’s lead of 8 open back up after seeing off bottom Olimp-Dolgoprudny. Daniil was keen to keep the players going in a title race. He had seen teams squander chances before across Europe to know that there was life yet. Spartak played on the Saturday whilst Daniil was settling down in a hotel for the away game to Textilschik Ivanovo on Sunday when a shock 5-1 Spartak defeat was met with an eruption from his coaching staff in the bar. Daniil hid his emotions well. That result meant absolutely nothing if he didn’t prepare the boys mentally for a tricky away day. It was time.
Daniil’s starting 11 came out the traps early and put Textilschik Ivanovo under extreme pressure inside the opening minutes, and that pressure caved when Ilić converted at the near post inside the 3rd minute. Arkhipov added his 23rd league goal of the season just 10 minutes later and Khabarovsk was in complete control of a potential banana skin. Game management was going to be key, and knowing that their hosts were pushing for the playoffs, they had to come out and attack. Thankfully, the game was put to bed early into the second half when Arkhipov was felled inside the box, and he converted the penalty before Martynov nodded home a fourth to rub salt into the wounds. As comfortable as you like, 4-0 resounding win and the gap cut to 5. Daniil began preparations for the biggest match of his career yet. Khabarovsk fans chanting “bring on Spartak”. He knew what this meant to them. He couldn’t let them down, not this close.
Mere days before Spartak came to town, Daniil was overseeing training and started to prepare for the next drill. With his coaching staff watching the current drill, Daniil turned his back to start collecting materials for his next drill when he heard a sharp scream of pain. Panicking, he immediately dropped what he was doing to find Arkhipov on the ground writhing in pain. Antonio Tapia, head physio, was immediately on the scene to ease the striker’s worries and get him looked at, before breaking the awful news to Daniil. Arkhipov’s season was over. He was expected to be out until the final game of the season with sprained knee ligaments, and it couldn’t have come at a worse time. Daniil had to immediately go back to the drawing board, and find alternatives to play as the lone striker, and pray that they could fill the void left by such an influential player. Just as things are going so well, something brings it all crumbling back down.
Club captain Barkov takes the place of the injured Arkhipov, and although his game time has been limited, he has managed 7 goals in the league this season. Barkov was an experienced figure, Daniil knew he could rely on him – he was just praying that the lack of game-time would not come back to haunt him. Thankfully, you couldn’t tell the captain had hardly played after he linked up superbly with Prokopiev outside the Spartak box, who then slid through Galkin to give advantage to Daniil. Jubilation, but not quite relief around the stadium – this game was far from over. The first 45 minutes felt like a game in itself for Daniil monitoring from the dugout, but eventually, he was able to get the players in and remind them of what was at stake here. This league was theirs for the taking, but they had to do the dirty work here and now to give them that hope of taking it home come the summer. With their manager’s word fresh in their heads, Khabarovsk went to take the game to Spartak but the visitors held firm. In fact, the visitors gave the hosts a few scares as well, before Galkin added his second with a beautiful freekick with 15 minutes left to play. Daniil was finding it hard to remain cool, calm and collected on the sideline, that goal was massive. But it still wasn’t over. A tremendous shift by the midfield 2 and the backline ensure Spartak did not breach the lines, and Khabarovsk recorded a famous 2-0 victory over league leaders Spartak. A fist pump from Daniil to the crowd was about as emotional he got, the gap was 2 points. The stadium was ecstatic. Daniil was on cloud nine although he was calm on the outside. They couldn’t do it. Could they?
Daniil knew that the team couldn’t rest on their laurels. Why? Nizhniy Novgorod awaited Daniil next, and given their surprising result against Spartak, he knew that this game was going to be crucial in deciding the league title. A comprehensive 3-0 victory over Nizhniy booked Khabarovsk’s ticket to the playoffs, but a late Spartak winner away to Tom ensure they remained top of the league. Whilst Daniil was focusing on Spartak, he totally forgot Khimki were hot on his heels also, recording a 1-0 victory over Yenisey to remain 3 behind Khabarovsk and 5 behind Spartak. A three-way shootout. Who will buckle?
|Spartak M-2||SKA Khabarovsk||Khimki|
|Volgar – 11th – Home||KamAZ – 14th – Away||Krasnodar-2 – 15th – Away|
|Metallurg Lipetsk – 12th – Home||Sokol – 19th – Away||Olimp-Dolgoprudny – 20th – Away|
|Torpedo Moscow – 8th – Away||Tom – 18th – Home||Akron – 16th – Home|
Sunday 12th May 2024
Daniil knew what this time of the season meant. The strains on the mind because of the constant mind-games and media attention. League scheduling always favours a media narrative, especially when a title race has games kicking off at different times from each other. Spartak and Khimki were both the normal kick-off times, with Daniil’s side kicking off later, knowing what they must do. Upon arriving at KAMAZ Stadium, shockwaves were announced throughout the division. 11th placed Volgar, with nothing to play for, recorded a historic 1-0 victory over Spartak. Khimki just seen off Krasnodar-2. The pressure was on Daniil. KamAZ were proving a tough nut to crack for Daniil as his side huffed and puffed, but couldn’t find that breakthrough goal. Daniil was pacing the technical area, barking out instructions, motivating his players to go through the gears, and eventually the breakthrough. Ilić got on the end of a wonderful cross and headed home the opener. Finally some control on the stroke of halftime. The team needed to start well in the second half. Daniil stressed this for 12 minutes of the allotted 15 minutes, but it went right back out the other ear as KamAZ equalised 40 seconds into the second half. Khabarovsk had it all to do again. Denis Prokopiev stepped up to the plate on the hour mark to put his side back in front, and just when it all seem to be done, KamAZ equalised again out of nowhere. Sheer frustration as Daniil volleyed away the water bottles in the last minute of injury time – a goal that could have been avoided. Spartak retains their top position, but only just by a point. Khimki move in that wee bit closer, only a point behind.
Sunday 19th May 2024
It was Daniil’s turn to play his game before Spartak and Khimki, and it isn’t a bad thing. Always preferring to set the pace than chasing, Daniil knew he wanted to see a much-improved performance from his side against relegated Sokol – it was up to them to apply the finishing touches. Daniil certainly got the level of performance he was after, as his boys beat Sokol 5-1 thanks to a Miskic and Barkov brace and Galkin. Daniil was content and with his iPad open watching Spartak and Khimki – “your move boys” though Daniil with a wry smile.
Daniil noted that neither team looked convincing, but it was a good sign if they could get a result whilst not looking great – both recording edgy 2-0 and 2-1 wins respectively taking the title race down to the final day. Daniil couldn’t control anything outwith his control, but he was having flashbacks to the poor 2 points dropped against KamAZ…
Sunday 26th May 2024
The strangest of title days is upon Daniil, and he doesn’t know if he is going to be sick with the nerves. A strange day in the aspect that the trophy could go to three destinations – all at different ends of Russia. “Whatever will be, will be” thought Daniil. He had accomplished promotion this season after setting the bar high, and no matter what happens he can hold his head high. Daniil arrived at the ground that little bit earlier than the team to overlook the park and collect his thoughts. He never thought he would have been in this position 3 years ago. Yet here he was. On the brink of a second trophy, and going to test himself against the top flight of Russian football after the summer. What a rollercoaster it had been so far.
Fans began arriving at the stadium in their crowds, a pair of headphones connected to almost every individual in attendance. With the three games kicking off at the same time, and the crowd tuning in, Daniil knew that he was in for a bumpy 90 or so minutes.
GOAL! SKA Khabarovsk 5th minute – Khabarovsk move top
Trying to remain calm on the sidelines on a day like this, was near on impossible for Daniil. He had to take a seat again to collect himself and not get too carried away.
GOAL! Tom Tomsk 9th minute – Spartak move top
GOAL! Spartak M-2 8th minute – Spartak are league champions as things stand
That was exactly why and the stadium fell silent within a matter of 30 seconds. In a ghost town atmosphere, Daniil felt as if he could hear himself encouraging his players to collect their thoughts and go again.
GOAL! SKA Khabarovsk 10th minute – Spartak remain top
And within an instant, the stadium had life. Daniil knew he was going to have a torrid time today, but he didn’t quite imagine this.
GOAL! Torpedo Moscow 37th minute – Khabarovsk move top
The stadium erupted, and at first, Daniil had forgotten why – he was questioning why the Khabarovsk fans were celebrating a throw-in down in their own corner. His players began passing on messages between them, encouraging each other to dig in and make sure they take care of their own business – Daniil’s job was made a bit easier in times like this.
GOAL! Torpedo Moscow 42nd minute – Khabarovsk remain top
A smaller cheer went up behind the Khabarovsk goal, followed by a mighty cheer around the stadium. Word reached Khabarovsk that Enzo Zidane had given Torpedo the lead over their Moscow counterparts. Was a fairytale story about to come true?
GOAL! SKA Khabarovsk 87 minute – Khabarovsk remain top
And finally, a collective sigh of relief led by Daniil, around the stadium as Khabarovsk eventually get the two-goal cushion with moments to play. It looked as though Khabarovsk had done their part, could Torpedo hold out their slender lead?
SKA Khabarovsk 3 Tom Tomsk 1
An awkward moment in time following the full-time whistle in Khabarovsk, as there was still minutes to be played in Moscow. Fans, players, management and directors are all holding their breath, waiting to celebrate as Spartak press for an equaliser and winning goal.
Torpedo Moscow 2 Spartak M-2 1
However, the clock was against them. Khabarovsk had pulled off what many deemed the impossible going into the final day.
They were champions.
However, whilst the players and fans were all away enjoying the newfound success, Daniil was sat in the corner in silence. His brain was already thinking about plans for the new season. Where his squad was weak. What formation and style he would settle on. This was going to be a massive jump for everyone connected to the club. Daniil wanted to make the most of this opportunity.