Wednesday 04 May 2016, 06:18

Rostov following in Leicester's spirit

There is a genuine footballing boom going on in 2018 FIFA World Cup Russia™ Host City Rostov-on-Don at the moment. In May 2015 the favourite team in one of the biggest cities in Russia, which is set to host four group-stage matches and a last-16 clash at the 2018 World Cup, was propping up the table in the country's Premier League. Rostov only avoided automatic demotion by virtue of matches won and secured their top-flight status after victory in a relegation play-off against Tosno.

Fast forward one year and Rostov are up there with the leaders having beaten the top clubs in Russia one after the other, including a 3-0 defeat of reigning champions Zenit Saint Petersburg late last month. Moreover, they went eight consecutive games without conceding until a surprise loss last time out against Mordovia Saransk. Yet despite this defeat, Rostov are still in the running for the title. Parallels with England's Leicester City are unavoidable, with Rostov's transformation just as much of a miracle.

The club have tasted success before – they lifted the Russian Cup for the first time in 2013/14 for example – but to date their best league finish has been sixth, a feat they look certain to vastly improve on this season.

The country's media constantly refers to Rostov as the “Russian Leicester”, but 32-year-old Moldovan defensive midfielder and captain Aleksandr Gatskan insisted the team is not entertaining such comparisons.

“We don't compare ourselves with Leicester, other than as a joke,” Gatskan said in an interview with “Yes, we're at the top end of the table and last season we came close to relegation, but in terms of how we play, you can't compare us. This is not because the Premier League in England is better, the players in each team are just different.”

Football revival in Rostov-on-DonRostov's fans are enjoying their moment in the sun after many seasons watching their team struggle in the bottom half of the league. Now the locals only have one problem.

“Everybody has always loved football here, but now the team is playing so well even those who didn't care about football before are taking an interest. Getting tickets for games is really hard nowadays. Even if the stadium could hold more people (Olimp-2's capacity is 15,840), all the tickets would disappear in a flash anyway.”

The new stadium, which is being built in the city ahead of the World Cup should solve that issue.

“I live not far from the stadium and can see it from my window," Gatskan explained. "I'm able to view the progress on construction every day. I hope I get a chance to play there in the near future, I dream about leading Rostov out as captain at the new arena. It would be just awesome!”

Gatskan joined the club eight years ago when they dropped out of the Premier League and helped them climb straight back up.

“It was a positive period actually," he said. "Rostov had not been relegated for 14 years so we aimed to bounce back as quickly as possible and managed to do just that. The whole city was overjoyed at winning the First Division so I've got fond memories from that season.”

A born winner at the helmBut how have Rostov managed to stay in the hunt for top spot with only a few changes to the squad that finished in 14th the season before?

“We have a good squad and a fantastic coach," Gatskan said. "After we secured our place in the top flight last year, all the guys thought long and hard and set themselves the task of improving the way we prepare. We give it our all in every training session, listen to the manager and try to do what he tells us on the pitch."

Rostov are managed by one of the most decorated coaches in Russian football, Kurban Berdyev. In contrast to Leicester's manager Claudio Ranieri, Berdyev already has experience of guiding teams to league titles. In fact, he achieved the feat twice with Rubin Kazan in 2008 and 2009. Berdyev rules the roost at Rostov and the top sides find it particularly difficult to cope with his defensive set-up and dangerous counter-attacks.

“Rostov play in the coach's image,” agreed Gatskan. “Berdyev sets his team up so the players have freedom in attack and are able to improvise, while everyone has to keep things very tight in defence in strict compliance with what we work on at the training ground.”

This gives you an idea how Rostov managed to play eight games on the spin without conceding. They have seen off all challengers on home turf – CSKA Moscow, Spartak Moscow and Zenit to mention a few – but find it more difficult playing away against teams fighting for survival. Recently Rostov only just managed to break down Kuban Krasnodar's resistance, Gatskan himself getting the solitary goal of the game ten minutes from time. For the midfielder from Chisinau, it was just his 14th strike in eight seasons in Rostov-on-Don but definitely one of the most important.

Gatskan firmly rejects any attempts to talk about their title chances and the possibility of playing in the UEFA Champions League, for which Russia gets two berths: “No, we can't talk about that right now. We just have to win the next game.”

The city is relishing both the prospect of an unexpected participation in a European club competition and the ever-nearer showpiece that is Russia 2018: “People really love football here and everyone cannot wait for the World Cup,” Gatskan said. “The football frenzy will be massive, we can already feel it now at Rostov matches.”