Suleiman Kerimov

Soccer politics: Anzhi Makhachkala and the dangers of Dagestan

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Russian Premier League club Anzhi Makhachkala’s fortunes continued to deteriorate on Monday after authorities in Belarus issued a warrant for its owner’s arrest. Suleyman Kerimov, who is also the majority shareholder and co-owner of Uralkali, a Moscow-based potash company, is under investigation for corruption.

Kerimov lost a reported $375 million when Uralkali’s stock plummeted in August, prompting him to put every potentially lucrative player on the squad up for sale and decrease the team’s budget by $50 to $70 million a year. The club’s two biggest names, Samuel Eto’o and Willian, both joined fellow Russian-tycoon-turned-soccer-owner Roman Abramovich at Chelsea.

Officials in Belarus have now put Kerimov on Interpol’s most wanted list, after Uralkali CEO Vladislav Baumgertner was charged and detained in Belarus in late August. Russian news agency RT reported that Baumgertner is currently being held at a KGB jail in Minsk, the Belarusian capital, possibly in solitary confinement.

Relations between Russia and Belarus have been strained since the fall of the Soviet Union, with the Uralkali situation acting as another flash point.

As with most clubs and countries in Eastern Europe, to understand the politics of soccer, understanding the machinations of government is vital. Particularly in former Soviet spaces, the two have always been and will likely always be intertwined.

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The location of Makhachkala and the region of Dagestan (in red) on a map. (Source: Google Maps)

Kerimov took over Anzhi in January 2011, investing heavily to turn it into one of Europe’s superclubs before the recent reversal. Many fans in the area saw the club as a constructed distraction from the civil war in the Dagestan region, a conflict that has hampered Anzhi’s efforts to play home matches this year.

The team lives and trains just outside Moscow and flies to home games in Makhachkala under heavy guard, and in June, UEFA banned all competitive matches in continental competitions from taking place in Dagestan during the 2013/14 season. In the 2001/02 UEFA Cup, Anzhi had to play Rangers FC of Scotland in Warsaw, Poland, because of the unstable situation in neighboring Chechnya.

Now, that situation has shifted slightly east.

The region of Dagestan hit headlines in the United States after the April 15 bombings at the Boston Marathon finish line. The two suspects in the attack lived briefly in Dagestan before coming to the U.S.

While Anzhi Makhachkala club officials have claimed that soccer can change the situation in Dagestan, many others in the region say the club’s exploits are meant to be a diversion from the widespread unemployment, corruption and sheer poverty of the area.

Some suspect that Kerimov’s heavy initial investment was nothing more than a public-relations scheme from the Kremlin to purify the area’s image ahead of the 2014 Winter Olympics in Sochi, just 600 miles away from Makhachkala by road on the Black Sea coast. Two years ago, the BBC declared Dagestan “the most dangerous place in Europe,” citing the almost-daily bombings, shootouts and perpetual ruin.

As far as distractions go, Anzhi’s fortunes since Kerimov bought the club have proven useful. Top-five league finishes, deep runs in the Russian Cup and a Round of 16 appearance in the Europa League represented the club’s two best seasons in the top division since Anzhi’s inception in 1991.

But with Kerimov taking a public step back from the club and his recent off-field business troubles coming to light, the distraction may be over, despite a draw in the 2013/14 Europa League that includes Tottenham Hotspur.

Just as the music stops and the lights come back on at the end of a long night out, the party seems to be over in Makhachkala. And the situation outside is nothing to celebrate.

Seven unheralded stars of this Premier League season

during the Barclays Premier League match between A.F.C. Bournemouth and Tottenham Hotspur at Vitality Stadium on October 25, 2015 in Bournemouth, England.
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Look, it’s been a crazy year in the Premier League. Leicester City is top by five points, Chelsea is a bottom-half side, and not one of the league’s top three scorers hails from a team in last season’s Top Four.

So it follows that among the league’s other statistical leaders — advanced and traditional — are some surprisingly shining stars.

[ MORE: West Ham 3-2 Liverpool | Coutinho’s slick free kick ]

Or at least they aren’t mentioned a ton. We plan to rectify that here. By no means do we claim these statistical leaders without fault this season, but hats off to the good they’ve done (or, in some cases, the pain they’ve felt).

Most saves in a starring role

You wouldn’t know it from the goal totals these past few weeks, but Stoke City’s Jack Butland has been playing otherworldly between the sticks. His 87 saves lead the Premier League, and the Potters would be in the thick of a relegation battle if he hadn’t shone as brightly.

Ironman

Eleven players have played every minute of their side’s Premier League campaign this season (a 12th, Gareth Barry, has played all but one). Four of those 11 are goalkeepers, and six more are defenders. The only midfielder? Bournemouth’s South African standout Andrew Surman (above).

Top thief, too

Surman is also the league leader in interceptions with 92. The next seven players on the list, headed by Chris Smalling, are all defenders.

The most under-appreciated of the underdogs

Kante (Mark Thompson / Getty Images)

Leicester City has been fantastic, and people are quick to name Riyad Mahrez and Jamie Vardy as big parts of the table-topping effort at King Power Stadium. Then, perhaps they’ll say something about goalkeeper Kaspar Schmeichel or defender Wes Morgan.

But how about the Premier League’s leader in tackles. Midfielder N'Golo Kante (right) has 115 tackles, 12 more than second-best Yohan Cabaye of Crystal Palace.

An all-expense paid journey to the massage parlor for…

Five players have been fouled more than 50 times this year, and you need to be around the ball a lot for that to happen. The four also-rans are Southampton’s Sadio Mane, Swansea City’s Andre Ayew, Everton’s Ross Barkley and Mahrez, but the man who deserved to skip to the head of the ice bath line is from Crystal Palace: Wilfried Zaha has been fouled 59 times. And that’s the amount of times the foulers were caught in the act.

Let Newcastle United’s captain climb in second, though; Fabricio Coloccini‘s 47 blocked shots are eight more than runners-up Neil Taylor (Swans) and Christian Fuchs (Leicester).

A man possessed

He hasn’t been heralded like a year ago, and most witnesses would tell you the midfielder’s been playing much worse. No, touches don’t equal success, but Cesc Fabregas‘ 2,027 credited touches are 74 more than the next player despite the fact that he’s the only player in the top four to have started less than 25 matches. He’s also completed 83 more passes than the closest competitor (Surman).

All-around stars

Advanced stats site Squawka uses an algorithm to generate statistics on who just might be the most complete player in the Premier League.

It’s certainly not foolproof, but the best player per-90 minutes would likely surprise you: Mousa Dembele of Spurs (Minimum 15 matches).

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As for who’s produced the most when numbers are averaged out over the entire game, one man rises to the top: Ross Barkley.

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Oft-targeted in the Premier League, Carvalho extends deal at Lisbon

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William Carvalho has been running through the rumor mill for ages, and Sporting Lisbon has made sure they’ll get their due if he ever stops somewhere else.

The Angola-born Portuguese defensive midfielder with 15 caps has extended his contract with Sporting through 2020, a date that carries him through his 28th birthday.

[ MORE: West Ham 3-2 Liverpool | Coutinho’s slick free kick ]

Carvalho is 23 now, and has been linked with loads of big name clubs from Manchester United to Chelsea, Arsenal to PSG.

His new buyout clause is said to be as high as $53 million, and Carvalho hopes his commitment calms his supporters.

“Sportinguistas, I say to you that I am very happy with the deal which I signed up to 2020 and that you will have total effort on my part to be champions.”

Sporting is tied with Benfica atop the Portuguese table, second on goal differential. The club leads third-place Porto by six points, and is still alive in the Europa League. Bayer Leverkusen is up next.

Klinsmann hints at Euro-heavy roster for World Cup qualifiers

FOXBORO, MA - SEPTEMBER 08:  Danny Williams #14 of the United States looks on before an international friendly against Brazil at Gillette Stadium on September 8, 2015 in Foxboro, Massachusetts.  (Photo by Billie Weiss/Getty Images)
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If your favorite Major League Soccer players don’t make the cut for Jurgen Klinsmann’s next roster, don’t think you won’t see them in the red, white and blue this summer.

[ JPW: What’s the best XI for USMNT’s World Cup qualifiers? ]

Perhaps it’ll be different for the players who were a part of January camp — stars Lee Nguyen and Steve Birnbaum chief among them — but Klinsmann says the late start of the MLS season can affect fitness for the critical qualifiers home and away to Guatemala.

That means there’s a better chance to see in-form Championship midfielder Danny Williams (above) or Pachuca’s Omar Gonzalez then, say, Orlando City’s Brek Shea or Real Salt Lake’s Kyle Beckerman.

From USSoccer.com:

“We are basically looking all over the place. We monitor all the players in Europe. We monitor all the players in Mexico, and obviously we can’t wait until MLS starts as well. It’s really kind of crucial that we see everybody getting in the best shape possible, everybody getting into a rhythm and making statements.

“Then you say, ‘Is the roster you see at the end of March the same one as Copa America?’ Probably not. The end of March comes early for MLS players. The European players are in the full swing, and also Mexican players because they started already a month ago with Liga MX. So we’ll be monitoring everyone.”

We’ve already covered the obstacle that is the CONCACAF-CONMEBOL Olympic qualifying playoff occurring at the same time as the Guatemala matches, but this is still good news for players in England, Germany and other European locales seeking caps in March.

Klopp on struggling Benteke: “He wants to score and we need him to score”

LONDON, ENGLAND - FEBRUARY 09:  Christian Benteke of Liverpool reacts as he foiled by goalkeeper Darren Randolph of West Ham United during the Emirates FA Cup Fourth Round Replay match between West Ham United and Liverpool at Boleyn Ground on February 9, 2016 in London, England.  (Photo by Clive Rose/Getty Images)
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Jurgen Klopp had his appendix removed this weekend, but it’s doubtful he’s feeling as sore as his big Belgian striker.

Christian Benteke had the opportunity to put himself in the good graces of Liverpool fans with a number of decent chances in Tuesday’s FA Cup loss to West Ham, but couldn’t get the job done.

[ MORE: Match recap | Watch Coutinho’s slick free kick ]

In one case, Benteke put himself in a prime spot only to lash his shot wide of the post. Instead, he’s now at 11 appearances without a goal (despite ripping nine shots against the Irons).

From the BBC:

“I don’t believe in the easy goal. He has to carry on like this. It’s not the nicest moment in his career but he has to work hard. He wants to score and we need him to score. We will work on it in the days, weeks and months.”

Klopp maintained that Liverpool was “the better team” on the night — counterpart Slaven Bilic disagreed — despite conceding a pair of very similar looking goals.

The game could’ve avoided extra time through Benteke’s boots and body, but he couldn’t find his finish again.

The 25-year-old has seen his goal production drop by nearly half since joining from Aston Villa in the summer, and it’s sure to return… just maybe not under Klopp.