As Leicester City was extending their lead at the top of the Premier League by seeing off a spirited Newcastle side, a similar and equally baffling story was playing out in Russia, as FC Rostov found themselves sitting atop the Russian Premier League (RPL), albeit based on their head-to-head record with second-placed CSKA Moscow.
The similarities between Leicester and Rostov are many, leading to the BBC to recently title them the Leicester City of Russia. Indeed, if you were to check the Russian language version of FC Rostov’s Wikipedia page, you would see that one of their nicknames is “Russian Leicester” (“Русский Лестер”). So what is going on? Who are FC Rostov, and why are they being compared to one of the most unexpected title challengers in English football history?
Founded in 1930, and at one point simply named “Traktor”, Rostov has been a team of also-rans for much of their history. They flitted between the Soviet Top League and Soviet First League (the first and second divisions of the Soviet Union respectively) between the 60s and 90s, with their high point being a fourth-placed finish in the final Soviet Top League season in 1991.
Since the formation of the Russian Premier League in 1992, Rostov has spent only two years outside of the top flight. In that time, Rostov has never finished higher than 6th in the league, and more often than not they have finished between 11th and 13th place (bearing in mind the RPL only consists of 16 teams in total). One notable success for FC Rostov is that they gave the first ever start in Russian football to an English player. The player? David Bentley…
Rostov has had a little more cheer in the Russian Cup, which they won as recently as 2014, but this one cup win was very much an anomaly of their existence, rather than signalling the beginning of a new period of success for the club. Triumph in the cup saw them qualify for the Europa League during 2014-15, but they were quickly dispatched by Trabzonspor in the final pre-group stage round.
The comparisons with Leicester City began this season due to Rostov’s emerging and unlikely title challenge. Like Leicester, FC Rostov spent the 2014-15 season firmly lodged in the bottom three of their league, and like Leicester, Rostov were still sitting in 16th (bottom) position with 10 games to go. In a situation mirroring Leicester’s, an upturn in form took Rostov briefly to as high as 10th. However a slump saw them finish in 14th place, thus consigning the Yellow-Blues to contesting a relegation play-off to secure their top flight status.
They were drawn against FC Tosno of the second division for the two-legged play-off tie, and over the course of the two games Rostov comfortably maintained their RPL status, winning by an aggregate scoreline of 5-1.
Fast forward 12 months, and Rostov are now sitting at the top of the RPL. With 10 games left, they sit above other Russian powerhouses such as CSKA Moscow, Dynamo Moscow and Zenit St. Petersburg. Whilst CSKA sit behind Rostov due to their head-to-head records, the RPL, like the English Premier League, has seen a string of traditional big clubs struggling for form this year. Last season’s champions Zenit are currently a disappointing fifth (although they only sit six points behind Rostov and CSKA), and Dynamo are languishing in 11th place, 19 points off the pace. Krasnodar, last season’s third place finishers are not taking advantage of the gap above them, and currently sit fourth. Taking the role of the RPL’s version of West Ham United, by the way, is Lokomotiv Moscow, who last year finished 11th but currently sit in third.
All of this has allowed Rostov to break through and make an unexpected tilt at the title. Whether they can continue this form all the way to the title is unclear. With ten games remaining, they are only seven points better off than the team in seventh, Spartak Moscow. The possibility of them falling away and back into mid-table obscurity is much higher than it is for Leicester, who have benefitted from every team (except for Tottenham) suffering inconsistent and uncharacteristically poor form. For Rostov, they still face a strong CSKA side that is right behind them. Moreover, with Zenit now out of the Champions League, they can focus their efforts on clawing back the six-point gap between themselves and Rostov.
If Rostov were to go on and win the RPL title this year, it would arguably be an achievement on par with Leicester should they themselves win the league.