#27 – SEASON 14 – RUSSIA & BALTIKA KALININGRAD

After signing up for international duties, Daniil had no time for himself throughout the summer. After drawing 1-1 with Dinamo Moscow on the 24th May 2036, Daniil had a couple of days to himself before addressing the national team for their EUROs warmups. It was a hectic schedule, but Daniil was determined to make his nation proud.


Russia – EURO 2036

With the group stages announced, Russia would be squaring off with Bosnia & Herzegovina, Serbia and Scotland for a place in the Second Round; and with the new format of the four best 3rd place teams going through, Daniil knew that making a statement was imperative.

To prepare his squad for a tough campaign, Daniil arranged for Portugal and Turkey to travel to Russia as the pre-tournament warmup. Daniil knew that the performances were more important than the result, but Russia went into the tournament full of confidence after recording a 0-0 and a 1-0 victory respectively.

With a week to go to the tournament starting for Russia, Daniil arranged for the team to arrive in Portugal a few days ahead of schedule to adjust to the summer weather they would be playing in. A lot of the players had just come off the back of a gruelling season, so a couple of days off whilst touring Lisbon would do the players the world of good. Daniil had complained about the way the fixtures would work out for Russia; their opening group game was in the Estádio do Dragão in Porto, whilst the two final games would be in and around Lisbon.

The travel was telling, as an impressive Russia brushed past Bosnia & Herzegovina before labouring to a slim 1-0 victory over the Serbians; however, this gave Russia full control of their fate going into the final match against Scotland. That win would see them go through as group winners and have more chance of a favourable draw.

However, the draw did spit out a favourable tie against Poland, Russia was in the harder half of the draw with nations like France, Portugal, Belgium & Spain all potential opponents. Daniil knew that it was going to be a huge ask to proceed into the latter stages of the competition, but the togetherness of the side was starting to show. The Russian FA were delighted with Daniil’s ability to get them out of the group, that was the expectation set to him before the tournament, anything after this was going to be a bonus for the nation.

Poland proved to be a sticky opposition for Russia, but a dominant second-half performance was more than enough to see off the threat and put Russia’s name into the hat for the Quarter-Finals; on the same stage, Russia was dumped out of the competition in 2028 against Portugal. There were no real shocking results in the Second Round, but Russia was handed the tough draw of France in the Quarter-Finals.

The world’s media wrote off Russia before this game, and that was the ammunition needed for Daniil’s team talk. Snippets of media quotes hung in the dressing room before the game, and it proved to be pivotal in the game. Russia frustrated France throughout the whole 90 minutes but took their two chances in the first half that really kicked off the game. The French were losing the heads and Wesley Fofana was fortunate not to be sent off earlier in the game with the number of fouls conceded. A huge shock at the EUROs and Daniil was ecstatic – they couldn’t go further, could they?

As the games played out, there were only big nations left in the Quarters, and there were to be no surprises at all. Russia would go on to play Belgium in the Semi-Finals; a repeat of the Nations League final and Russia had a score to settle.

A game that lacked discipline as both teams looked to gain an advantage, it certainly was a battle of Lisbon for the place in the final. An explosive start from Russia put the Belgians on the back-foot, and Daniil was craving for that second goal before half-time to edge the game in their favour. It never happened, but thankfully grabbing a goal so early into the second half looked to have swung the tie in the Russian’s favour. However, Belgium was not going to go down without a fight and capitalised on lapses in concentration to square the game. It was going to extra time, the one thing Daniil did not want to happen. It was a long 30 minute period, but when Russia took the advantage and gained a numerical advantage, it looked like the game was set in stone. Until Popov received his marching orders.

Daniil couldn’t watch from the sidelines. It was painful. Wave after wave of Belgium attacks, but Botnar’ done his bit in net and ensured Russia would be booking their place in the final. Their first since 1988 when they lost to Holland. Would history repeat itself, or would Daniil go down in the history books? In the other tie, England booked their place in the final with a 1-0 victory over Norway.


Not expected to reach anywhere near the final, Daniil wanted to ease expectations on his squad. Yes he did have talent in the squad from Barcelona & Borussia Dortmund, but many saw Russia as a developing footballing nation – talent was there but it was about breaking through. In comparison to England, all the pressure was on them as they boasted a side of world talent.

Russia did strike first in the final, however. Babushkin found the back of the night inside 5 minutes but was ruled as offside. A positive start and Daniil was hoping his side could build upon that. As England looked to take control of the game, Russia dispossessed them on the halfway line on 13 minutes, and hit on the counter – Babushkin turned provider for Gusev, but his strike partner was judged to start his run too early and his goal was chopped off. Daniil knew it was going to be one of those days, and the next wave of the attack confirmed it.

England scored directly from that freekick. One long searching ball found its way over the defence, and England took full advantage. 1-0. Daniil could see dejection from his players, he knew that they could get back into this game and that there was plenty of time left in the game. The next goal was going to be vital, and it proved to be.

A well-worked throw-in on the edge of the box found his man, who had all the time to pick out a cross for a glancing header on the penalty spot. A well-worked goal, Daniil was impressed with it. It was just a shame it was for England and not his homeland. 2-0 England after 23 minutes and a mountain stood between Russia and the EURO trophy.

Unfortunately for Russia, they could not break down the English lines of defence, and without really testing the goalkeeper, slumped to a 2-0 defeat. The VAR interventions were crucial for the English, and Russia struggled to pick themselves up. So close, yet so far for Daniil at his first major finals, but there were positives for him to take going into the World Cup qualifiers and the Nations League.


Transfers

A busy summer window for Baltika was much needed, especially with the departure of players through their contract expiring, and offers that were too good to turn down. The out-goings for Daniil was the biggest part in his decision as to what he had to go out and shop for, especially losing two of his main defenders:

Cristian Castro was a bit upset with his playing time in the past season, and whilst he got on with Daniil, he wanted to be playing regularly in his old age. When the opportunity to go home arose, Daniil couldn’t stand in front of his move – Baltika made a small profit on the defender, which was also a bonus.

Young talent Oleg Yakovlev was getting exposure to first-team football but really wanted to join Dinamo Moscow when they announced their interest. Despite numerous bids falling way short of the young midfielder’s value, they reluctantly agreed to pay his £2.5 million release clause, which Daniil could do nothing about.

The biggest loss, however, was central defender Carlos António to his previous employers. Signed for £215K in the summer of 2034, Baltika would take home a healthy profit on the defender, but it was leaving a void in the backline – Daniil had to address that immediately.

With the arrival of Rodrigo Jiménez, Delgado’s days were numbered following a poor season by his standards, and Jiménez was the better of the two. A bit of a risk coming from Costa Rica to Russia, Daniil was hoping he would be able to natch the step up in quality and prove to be invaluable for Baltika’s European push.

To try and help with the squad registration, Kharchenko and Zakharchenya both agreed to join Daniil’s side for the upcoming season. Parting with £375K to land Kharchenko, and getting Zakharchenya in on a free, Daniil knew that the defence would be able to cope with the loss of both Castro and António with these two coming in.

To round off the squad depth, Memic joined on a free following his release from Ajax to be second fiddle in goals for the time being. However, a severe lack of depth in the left-back area meant that Daniil had to do some last-minute shopping where he secured the services of Tomassi on loan from Sassuolo, before signing Armando Fortes from Vit. Setúbal for £175K – both being able to play on the left and as an absolute last resort, Tomassi could cover in the middle of the back four.

Just as it looked as though Daniil was going to be done for the summer, on deadline day he managed to swoop in for Mura’s 19-year-old Tilen Jazbec, to come in as a first choice defensive midfielder. With the world at his feet and 22 caps at the age of 19, Daniil knew that he had a real gem on his hands, and was looking forward to seeing the Slovenian develop.

The winter window, on the other hand, was significantly quieter in comparison to the summer window; Daniil was keen to keep the core of the team together, and not disrupt the morale around the club with too many new players:

With an eye on the future, and in particular in goals, Daniil elected to bring in Casanova from Peñarol on a free. Daniil knew he had another year or two to develop before marking his authority amongst the first team, but with no money handed over it was a risk-free investment. The same could be said for Chemale, a left-sided defender once again from Grêmio on a free, Daniil certainly liked how well-rounded the 19-year-old was already.


Baltika Kaliningrad – UEFA Europa Conference League

By the time Daniil returned from international duty, pre-season had already begun for his club and they were two games deep. With a massive Second Qualifying Round tie coming up at the end of July, it was important to get a strong run of games under the belt for a crucial campaign in Europe.

Smolensk, Honvéd, Kisvárda and Standard Liege all agreed to play Baltika before their first game in Europe, and all left with the taste of defeat. The perfect preparation for qualifying opponents FK Jetisu Taldykorgann of Khazakstan.

A professional job done over two legs, with new singing Jiménez opening his account in Baltika colours. Daniil was delighted to build the confidence earlier, as he knew that this was going to help in his quest to reach the group stages as per the board’s expectations. In the hat for the next round with a tie against Norwegian side Molde, Daniil knew that the challenges were going to increase from here on out.

With the damage done in the first leg, Daniil knew that it was going to be a huge ask of Molde to get back into the game on home soil, so elected to play a rotated side – the games were beginning to take their toll, and freshness was key. However, it was another victory in the qualifiers, and Daniil was one round away from taking Baltika to European Group Stages; would Sarajevo ruin it all for him?

Daniil was not too impressed with the performances over the two legs, he felt that Baltika had been dragged down to a Sunday League style of game where the opposition just cared about out-scoring the other. It was effective though as Baltika qualified for the Group Stages, and would participate in a group with Brentford, Hearts and København:

After a harsh lesson being taught by the side from London, Daniil managed to regroup his boys to take the group winner status to the final match-day against contenders Brentford. Brentford was flying in the Premier League on the build-up to this game, but when Baltika arrived and tore up the script, a lot of teams around Europe sat up and took notice of the new Russian force. Group winners competing in their first European campaign, it couldn’t get much better for Daniil as he could now look forward to the last 16.

Baltika was rewarded with a last 16 tie against Austrian side SCR Altach, who at this stage stood no chance against an in-form Baltika. It isn’t often a team scores 3 goals at home and still go on the lose the game, but Baltika ensured they would return to Russia with an advantage, before hammering home an emphatic victory to set up a glamour tie against Marseille in the Quarters.

Daniil didn’t know how serious Marseille was going to take the Conference League, but at this stage in the competition, Daniil couldn’t lose; he went above and beyond the board’s expectations in the competition, and he had a fighting chance, a slim one, at glory in the competition. Daniil was more than happy to focus on the league campaign to try and secure a higher quality of European football for the new season, but when Marseille went back to France after losing 2-0, Daniil could begin to dream:

Marseille inflicted Baltika’s 2nd defeat in the competition, but it wasn’t enough in France, as the Russians managed to do enough of a job in the first leg. One of the biggest shocks in Europe, and certainly Baltika’s biggest result in their history, Daniil was taking Baltika to their first semi-final appearance against the Czech side Slavia Prague to try and book a ticket to the Johan Cruyff Arena.

What would have been the perfect result, Baltika switched off in the dying embers of the first leg to give the Czechs a glimmer of hope for the second leg. At 4-1, there is so much more to do, but 4-2 gives them the upper hand should they striker first in the return leg; thankfully Baltika got the opening goal to put a bit of restlessness on the home fans, and despite a potential way back into the game inside the final 10 minutes, Baltika had secured passage to Amsterdam for their first-ever final. It was going to be an all Russian affair as Krasnodar saw off Valencia in the semi-finals, and it was going to be a nervy game given their results throughout the season.

It certainly wasn’t a final for the ages, but everyone associated with football will tell you that performance does not matter if you win the game, and in this instance, Baltika won the hearts of many across Europe for their first season success. Daniil couldn’t believe the character within his team as they went through 7 rounds before the final, before winning the competition. It was a remarkable achievement and Daniil was quoted saying that “this was the biggest day of his managerial career so far, long may the good times roll.” Europe will be watching Daniil’s side in the Europa League next season after winning a spot in the Group Stages, and Daniil was delighted that the club would be financially secure for at least the next couple of seasons following this run and the European money next season.


Russian Cup

Following their 5th placed finish last season, Daniil would not have a torrid run of games this season with the group stage, as Baltika took their place in the fifth round of the Russian Cup. With what many suggested was a favourable draw against Rostov at home, Baltika threw away a 3 goal advantage in the second half and had to settle for a 5-4 penalty victory to go to the quarters.

Perhaps this was going to be Baltika’s year in the domestic cup, as they were paired with another favourable draw, this time away to Yenisey – the first division side were no match to Europe chasers Baltika, as they were hit for 7. Passage secured to the semi-finals and with no Dinamo Moscow in the competition, Daniil was beginning to dream. Zenit, Rubin and Lokomotiv Moscow all waited – and it would be Daniil’s luck that they would face Zenit in the semi-finals.

Baltika travelled to St Petersburg and travelled back to Kaliningrad after losing 2-0. Daniil was left scratching his head trying to work out how they went on to lose that game, and he was really disappointed to be exiting the cup in the manner they did; Lokomotiv saw off Rubin and in Daniil’s eyes it was a missed opportunity. However, he knew that their day would come, and at this rate, it was coming sooner than many imagined.


Russian Premier League

Daniil knew that this was going to be a difficult campaign given the number of games he had to navigate in Europe. Squad rotation was going to be massive, but for the opening month and a half, tiredness was beginning to show with nervy results

With one of the smallest squads in the league, Daniil was up against it but manage to get a run of victories under the belts of the players that form looked alright.

A horrific showing on the first day of the season was soon forgotten about after Zenit and Dinamo were both dispatched one after the other. It was an impressive run of games for Baltika as they looked to lay out their credentials for a Champions League push early on, but as everyone knows in football, all good things must come to an end.

Just when Daniil thought things were bad enough losing to Akhmat 2-1, Spartak really made sure salt was mixing with Daniil’s open wound – it was his second-biggest defeat in his time at Baltika, and he made it clear to the players that it cannot happen again if they want to be taken seriously. As things looked to improve in the Baltika camp, a poor 2-0 defeat at home to Krylia Sovetov really opened up the breathing room amongst the top 5, and Baltika was starting to feel the pressure of teams around them. Daniil was just delighted to get to the winter break with a squad still intact – his team was dead on its feet and needed the 3-month break.

Starting the Premier League back up with a convincing victory over Zenit was enough for Daniil to think that his younger side could go on and achieve something special – Dinamo Moscow was a completely different force after their 4-2 defeat and was running away with the league, but Daniil had his eyes on 2nd or 3rd. However, he faced a setback when Baltika lost two points against Akhmat, before going on to lose to his direct opponents Spartak Moscow and Rubin. Going into the final four games knowing that Baltika’s fate was out of their hands, the Krylia Sovetov draw really was the final nail in the coffin for 2nd or 3rd – Baltika’s four placed finish was in their own hands – drop points against CSKA or Krasnodar would open up a door for Spartak Moscow to come in and snatch it right off Baltika.

Thankfully, Baltika got the job over the line and ensured that they would finish 4th – an improvement on last season. However, Daniil was frustrated with this given the past positions, and vital games were thrown away which meant the grip was loose.


Daniil had to be happy with the season as a whole, but he knew that there were plenty of missed opportunities that he had to try and rectify during the summer. With no international tournament, all focus was going onto improving the squad, particularly in a goal-scoring sense as the team were becoming too reliable on Dyulgerov, Jiménez and Selimović. Labus did have a good season for his standards as well, but was out with injury for the majority of it and just couldn’t shift either Jiménez or Selimović out of the picture.

Daniil was alerted that a war chest would be available to him next season; £11 million to be precise. Things were going to get interesting in Kaliningrad, and Daniil was already looking forward to the new season.

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