#26 – SEASON 13 – BALTIKA KALININGRAD

After hitting an impressive 8th-placed finish, and falling just short of Baltika’s highest ever league finish of 7th, Daniil knew that the foundations were taking shape and that he would be able to take Baltika further. In financial disarray, he knew the importance of European football, and that was the goal he was striving for.

Transfers

Daniil knew he had to bring talent in that would be able to turn the club’s fortunes around in tight games – Baltika lost 17 games last season and drew 6 whilst only managing 35 goals, Ivaylo Dyulgerov needed assistance with the goals and it was unfair to continuously rely on him. At the other end of the park, the defence still needed to be worked on along with a new goalkeeper; Vladimir Shaikhutdinov was good enough, to begin with, but there was a gulf in quality across the league. Sadly, Daniil could not bring in a goalkeeper, but he did manage 2 more players to join up with Fábio Suárez and Maan Mohamad:

Dušan Selimović won a move to Russia from Vojvodina for £2.3 million and Daniil could sense Marcelo Velásquez vibes from his new striker. Joining the club on a 4 year deal with a release clause of £7 million, Daniil was hoping that he would hit the ground running and earn a new contract with a much higher release clause to secure the club for years to come.

Secondly, following his release from Daniil’s old employers, Cristian Castro joined up with his old manager for one last dance in Russia. Not as mobile as he once was when brought to Kazan, Daniil knew he was getting a winning mentality into the team and a reliable head when the time comes. Castro was more than happy to join after a bit of back and forth concerning wages, and Daniil knew that he now had a spine of his team sorted.

Of course, the outlay in the Selimović deal was all thanks to a couple of players leaving Baltika as well. Four players left before the end of the summer, and whilst none of them was massive deals, it was a huge sigh of relief to get them off the wage bill:

The biggest surprise on this list was Englishman Roy Askew who had only joined the club 5 months ago. The local media reported that he had fallen out with Daniil concerning his role within the team, and Daniil thought he was being unreasonable; Roy wanted to play as a no-nonsense CB but in Daniil-ball, the defenders have still got to be reasonable with the ball at their feet and pick out the midfielders with accurate passing.

As the season progressed, more players were becoming unhappy with their game-time, and Daniil just couldn’t guarantee them the time they sought. Some of them had opportunities in rotated sides and never took their chance and it felt appropriate that they were moved on for the sake of the player and the club.

The biggest loss was losing club captain Dragan Dacić. Whilst Daniil appreciated him as a footballer, he knew that there was better talent out there waiting to be unearthed. Coupled with Dacić only having a year left on his contract, it was only right that the club cashed in on £1.5 million now, rather than running the risk of losing him for a cut-price. Aaron Morales was a useful backup option in defence, but after a calamitous performance, he just wasn’t cut out for Daniil’s style of play. Eremin was a younger talent that had no clear pathway into the side, and to get a couple hundred thousand in for him now plus a 30% cut of the profit, was a good deal for the club. These deals then opened up some more wages for Daniil to crack on with a couple more signings himself:

Andrey Mamin was the first to join a couple of months into the season when Daniil was alerted to his youth contract situation at Lokomotiv Moscow. With central defenders being difficult to come across, and especially a Russian one, Daniil knew that the £1.4K compensation package was worth paying to bring the 16-year-old in. He did go out on loan to Khimki, but Daniil recalled the youngster due to the promised playing time not being implemented.

Daniil’s second-best signing of the season was in the shape of Italian midfielder Loris Viganotti. The 29-year-old joined from Bologna for £99K and would fill the void left in the middle of the park by Dacić alongside Hallace. Viganotti spent a season on loan at Rostov before leaving Sampdoria, so Daniil knew he was bringing someone in that understood the league and what was needed. Hallace on the other hand was a risky signing. He left Internacional at the end of 2035 and eventually a fair deal was agreed; he turned down his native Brazil for Europe, and Daniil knew he had the talent it was just making sure he got the best out of him whilst he was with the club.

The final deal of the winter window was another young player coming in. Capable of starting senior football at the age of 19, Zoran Brumen signed on a free following his release from Olimpija. Capable of playing in defence and on the wing should Daniil ever introduce that, he was certainly the ideal backup for Suárez should he ever be called upon.


Russian Cup

Another year in the cup for Baltika, and yet another year the board were hoping to just qualify from the fourth round group stage and compete in the latter stages of the competition. Daniil knew that he had to give this cup his best shot this year due to the European entry involved in it, but it didn’t seem to be all rosy from the get-go.

A big 4-0 win over Textilschik Ivanovo put Baltika into pole position in the group early on and it suited Daniil to a tee. Textilschik then beat Volgar, meaning Daniil just had to avoid defeat against the First Division side. However, a game that was marred with 3 red cards, Labus and Laikin being sent off for Baltika, meant that Baltika was struggling for most of the game and Volgar looked as though they would go on to win the game after equalising in first-half injury time. Thankfully for Daniil, his boys did hold out for the 90 minutes, and although they lost the game on penalties, enough was done to send them into the Fifth Round. Not exacting as clear-cup as the previous season, but Baltika managed to live up to the board’s expectations and would be competing in the latter stages.

An away day to Krasnodar awaited Daniil in March, and whilst Krasnodar was flying in the league, Daniil was nervous going into this game but he didn’t need to be for some bizarre reason. Krasnodar went into the cup game on the back of 5 straight wins over Baltika, but a world-class second half performance dumped Krasnodar out of the cup, and the story went on for Baltika:

Baltika was rewarded for that famous win with a home tie against Zenit, a side that Daniil had always tended to struggle against, but confidence was high throughout the squad. At that current moment in time, Baltika could take on anyone. It was a much different game to that in Krasnodar, Baltika was under masses of unwanted pressure when Suárez picked up a second booking after 36 minutes, and the mammoth task just got bigger. However, the boys dug deep thanks to Daniil’s quick decision making, and managed to drag Zenit to a penalty shootout in what was a dull game for the spectator – Daniil didn’t care though, it was a result’s driven business.

A huge 5-3 penalty shootout victory was just what Daniil was after, and he felt that victory could drastically change his league fortunes with the confidence it was going to bring. After the game, it was announced that Dinamo Moscow would be waiting, and they delivered a harsh reality check for both Daniil and Baltika.

A truly emphatic first-half performance from the Moscow giants took the game right out of sight for Baltika and Daniil, who just had no answers for the clinical side of Sergey Astakhov. It was disappointing to lose any semi-final, but to lose it in the manner in which Baltika did, was just soul-crushing for Daniil. He knew that there was still a massive gulf in quality between his side and Dinamo, but he had faith that something would give and that gap would close in due course.


Russian Premier League

After a successful summer window, Daniil was quietly confident about the upcoming season. The board entrusted him to replicate another mid-table finish. But as always, Daniil aimed higher without telling anyone. He knew that he had put together a squad capable of surprising a lot of the media. Starting off on the right foot was going to be imperative for Daniil.

By the end of September, Daniil had Baltika sitting pretty in second, and it was all thanks to the sore defeat in Krasnodar. Recording a massive 1-0 victory at home against Zenit was the icing on the cake for Daniil, as he knew that his boys were capable of throwing punches back to the big boys when faced with questions about their mental state. A lot of the media in Russia had the result down as a massive victory for Zenit, and Daniil was the proudest man on earth when Dyulgerov grabbed the winning goal in the 68th minute.

Knowing that his side was performing so well, he knew that October, November and December were going to be massive – Baltika had to keep up this momentum if they wanted to be seriously considered in the mix for a top 5 finish:

October was certainly a month to forget for Daniil, as they started it off with a horror show of a second-half in Novgorod. After looking comfortable in a professional first-half, Nizhniy hit Baltika for 3 in the last 17 minutes of the game to bring Daniil back down to earth. This was the type of game that European contenders had to win, and it opened a door of opportunity for Zenit, Rubin and Krasnodar to pull a bit further ahead of Baltika. Coupled with a slim 1-0 defeat against Rubin away, a 6 point swing inside two games was massive for confidence, and Daniil had to try and pick his players up to try and get the season back on track – Daniil did not want this to become the game that would see Baltika slide down the table and away from the financial treasure of continental football.

Thankfully, things were put back into perspective with wins over Rostov and Krylia Sovetov, before Dinamo managed to see out a narrow 1-0 victory from the 9th minute. Winning three on the bounce before the winter break was a big confidence builder for Baltika, as these were games they would have lost or drawn last season.

Daniil knew the importance of hitting the ground running after the winter break, but Baltika looked so laboured in their opening 2 games against Akhmat and Zenit resulting in vital points being dropped. CSKA Moscow was the most infuriating game of the season for Daniil, as Baltika managed to fight back from 3-1 down to go and concede with the last kick of the game to consign them to defeat, but thankfully the players took the message on board and came back swinging as they dismantled Krasnodar for the second time this season. Victory over Krasnodar meant that Rubin Kazan was only 4 points ahead of Baltika, whilst Zenit and Krasnodar were only a point ahead. April was going to be massive.

Just as April looked to be a 100% record, the players completely switched off at home to relegation fighters Strogino, which gave Zenit and Krasnodar the upper hand as the teams went into the final four games. Daniil was fuming as this was a massive missed opportunity to keep the pressure on the two sides, but at the same time appreciated that his team were punching above their weight at this point – there was no way Baltika should be this close to a Europa League spot.

Unfortunately, there was going to be no Europa League appearance for Baltika due to results in May going against him, coupled with dropping points himself. The defeat against Strogino was the catalyst as he went into May, and although Baltika emerged victorious over Rubin, Zenit and Krasnodar just kept picking up points themselves. The final nail in the coffin was a 1-1 draw away to Krylia Sovetov and not being able to see out a game against Dinamo, who had nothing to play for after securing their third league title in a row.

It was a frustrating second half of the season for Daniil, looking back on the horror show of a March he knew it was that run of games that ultimately cost him a place in the Europa League at the worst. But, he had turned the fortunes round of Baltika Kaliningrad, and they would be making their first-ever European appearance in the 2036/37 Europa Conference League – not the most prestigious tournaments, but certainly a good financial and reputational booster for the club as a whole.


Baltika Kaliningrad

Daniil was extremely proud of the side’s efforts to get European football in Kaliningrad. Never had the city experienced a European night before – the city was buzzing with excitement. It was going to be a massive summer for the club in ensuring they were well equipped for the challenges that faced them in the Conference League; Baltika would enter at the Second Qualifying Round so there was a lot of football to be played.

Labus was certainly unlucky to find himself on the bench for the best part of the season due to the exploits of Selimović, who had lived up to the potential Daniil was praying for. The young Serbian finished joint goal-scorer in the league with 21 goals, only Daniil’s former player in Addessi could match the youngster.

It was at this stage of the season that Daniil knew he had to bring in a better goalkeeper, a natural left-back and a creative striker to help out with the goals and assists.

Amado Delgado never hit the heights of last season with his 6 goals and 4 assists in all competitions, and that was a concern for Daniil – midfielder Dyugerov did far better in a handful of more games, whilst new signings Hallace and Viganotti almost matched him. It was alarming for Daniil to see a striker struggle so much throughout the season to get involved and he knew he had to get a better option in and potentially move the striker on.

Whilst in defence, a natural left-back was needed. For much of the season, Carlos António and Denis Lipkin played in that position, and youth academy player Nikita Malakhov was given a fair run of games as well to aid in his development. However, the experience was going to be crucial and Daniil knew he had to get an older head in there that could take both Lipkin and Malakhov under his wing and push them in the right direction. 17-year-old Alexey Fedotov also got a run-out throughout the season, and Daniil would be looking to integrate him into the team properly in the new season.


Changing of the Guard…

At the end of July, Yury Krasnozhan announced his retirement from football management and left his post as Russia’s manager. Yury had just taken the nation to the final of the UEFA Nations League only to lose out narrowly to Belgium 1-0 – the experienced manager felt that this was the right time to call it a day from football management and stood down.

Daniil was preparing his team for a tricky journey to Krasnodar when he got the phone call from the FA asking him if he would be willing to take on the role and he couldn’t say no to representing his nation.

International management was a new can of worms for Daniil to navigate through. Having to try and decide on a style of play that players from around the country and Europe would adapt to, whilst not having the chance to coach them and mould them into his way of playing was going to be difficult. He didn’t underestimate the task at hand, it was an ageing squad as well, but with plenty of talents coming through he was optimistic.

Daniil took over the nation mid EUROs qualification, in a group with Denmark, Slovenia, North Macedonia and Estonia. There was a clear gulf in quality, Russia, Denmark and Slovenia were all undefeated after 5 games – someone had to miss out on the tournament, it was a case of who was going to blink first.

A tricky first two games in international management was met with satisfaction, as Daniil managed to throw together a system that gained 4 points. The win over Slovenia put the Russians and the Danes in pole position for first and second, and for Russia to come back twice against Denmark, filled Daniil with confidence for the rest of the campaign.

Two professional performances against the minnows of the group set up a final international break showdown with Slovenia and Denmark as to who would be automatically going to the EUROs 2036 co-hosted by Portugal and Italy. Denmark was in pole position to qualify, Russia only needed to get the job done against Slovenia to go through, whereas Slovenia needed a result against Russia and for Denmark to rub salt into the wounds.

And Slovenia’s dreams came true. Baffling, Daniil couldn’t believe his side threw away a commanding position at home, and the second-half performance in Denmark was beyond embarrassing. Football is a cruel game, and Daniil was feeling the FA’s eyes closely watching him as Russia failed to reach the EUROs automatically – it would need to be through the play-offs.

The FA were not slow in telling Daniil they were disappointed that they never qualified for the tournament automatically. In fact, his saving grace was being so new to the job, the FA made it clear they were considering other options should results not improve. Daniil knew that he had to get this right, and when Russia was given Switzerland in the Semi-Final and either Greece or Kosovo in the final, he knew he had to shine.

It wasn’t pretty, but Daniil did manage to book Russia’s passage to the EUROs. There were times during both these games when Daniil was questioning if he was way over his head in international management, but the sheer relief and joy of taking his nation of a major tournament outweighed the uncertainty. Russia would be in Portugal for the Group Stages of the EUROs. He was going to be representing his nation at the finals.

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