x Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 26 July 2017

Big spending Anzhi Makhachkala are a sign of the times

The newly rich Russian club faces the history boys of Liverpool at Anfield, writes Ian Hawkey.

Anzhi Makhachkala's Samuel Eto'o scored twice against Young Boys in their last Europa match. Kirill Kudryavtsev / AFP
Anzhi Makhachkala's Samuel Eto'o scored twice against Young Boys in their last Europa match. Kirill Kudryavtsev / AFP

The plaque above the staircase ushering players to the tunnel that leads to the pitch at Liverpool's home ground is one of European football's most resonant signs.

"This is Anfield" it says. At times those simple words have carried a daunting message for foreign guests. This is fortress Anfield, it might just as well spell out, where history bears down on you in a visceral way.

Passing through that tunnel for tonight's Europa League fixture will be one of the game's worldliest coaches, a striker with three European Cups to his name, employees of a club who are top of their domestic league and have scored 18 goals in Europe already in their current campaign.

This is Anzhi, a very different institution from Liverpool, but a more buoyant team right now; a club with no glorious back story but with very big money behind them.

Anzhi Makhachkala were in the Russian second division when Anfield was last the home of the reigning champions of their continent. When Liverpool embarked on the defence of their 2005 Champions League title, the fifth of their European Cups, Anzhi were playing in front of crowds of a few hundred.

Upward mobility has come to football in distant Dagestan thanks to the billionaire Sulyman Kerimov, among the 120 wealthiest individuals in the world, according to Forbes magazine.

His investment in Anzhi has been a mix of ostentation and ambition.

The first of the club's major signings, the Brazilian full-back Roberto Carlos, once of Real Madrid, was tempted to Russia by a vast wage and, once there, presented with luxury items said to include a vehicle worth more than €2 million (Dh9.5m).

Roberto Carlos now holds the office of sports director at Anzhi, working with Guus Hiddink, the coach, formerly of the Dutch, Russian, Turkish, Australian and South Korean national teams, and various clubs including PSV Eindhoven, with whom he won the European Cup.

The Anzhi striker Samuel Eto'o, recruited from Inter Milan in 2011, has three of those on a CV so full that Kerimov made him probably the highest-salaried footballer in the sport's history at a reported €14m a year.

Eto'o's two goals against Young Boys of Berne are why Anzhi sit top of Group A going into tonight's collision with a Liverpool side whose start to the season, whose defeat against Udinese in their previous outing and whose 12th position in the English Premier League are hardly convincing arguments against the idea that the freshmen to this competition from the far frontier of eastern Europe are favourites to progress from the mini-league.

Hiddink dismisses that notion. "We have many players who had no experience of the group phase of a European competition," said the Dutchman.

They are missing one who has plenty, the injured Lassana Diarra, formerly of Madrid and Chelsea, but Eto'o spearheads a side made up of promising younger talents, like the teenaged Ivorian Lacina Traore and experienced recruits like the former Chelsea full-back Yuri Zhirkov and the Congolese defender Christopher Samba.

They swept past Budapest Honved 5-0 on aggregate - Vitesse Arnhem (4-0) and Alkmaar (6-0) to reach the last 32 of this competition - and have conceded only one goal, so far, in the draw, at Udinese.

In the meantime, Anzhi, fifth in last season's Russian Premier League, are at the summit of their domestic table. They lead a strange nomadic existence however. Non-match days are spent by players and coaching staff in Moscow. Weekends mean a commute of more than 1,600 kilometres to their home ground in a region afflicted by violent civil unrest.

Uefa deem Dagestan too perilous a venue for Anzhi to stage European fixtures. So, for the return fixture next month, Liverpool will play in Moscow.

For that match, there will be no signage announcing "This is Anzhi" - although by then the English club will have a clearer idea of how far along the road towards their soaring ambitions Kerimov's project has advanced.

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