Vladimir Latunov’s first year of management in his homeland of Russia had started poorly but ended superbly as he led FC Ural Yekaterinburg to the best league finish in its history. But the hard work began now as he looked to strengthen to challenge perennial champions Zenit St Petersburg.
The summer began with snapping up the best talent from across Russia, mainly because of the need for Russian players in squad registration. The pick of the nine new Russian players was 18-year-old midfielder Yury Krychanov, who cost £2.5 million from Zenit. Another useful signing was left-back Nikolay Pakhomov, who also came in from Zenit for £2 million, along with the permanent signing of last year’s loanee Rustam Semenov, who cost £2 million from Latunov’s former club Rijeka, and a loan deal for Italian midfielder Massimo Vitaliano from Napoli. He also snapped up a new young goalkeeper in Vladimir Rumantsyev, who came in for £650,000 from Zenit – who apparently don’t care about youngsters.
But those signings were usurped by a new club record transfer. That saw the arrival of 19-year-old wonderkid left-winger Yury Yarygin, who cost a cool £15 million from Spartak Moscow. And this kid could be a gamechanger for Ural and their hopes of glory.
Bizarrely, the end of the summer saw Latunov receive an unusual message about achieving an ambitious objective to “maintain the best youth system in the world.” And it absolutely was not true based on the quality of youth system Ural actually have. Very strange…
Russian Premier League begins
The media had randomly made Ural title favourites at 13/5, above Zenit, who’ve won the last five titles, at 11/4, while Anders Hansen, Yordan Syurdzhiev and Eres Vrbnjak were in the dream 11. Latunov decided to stick with the 4-2-4 formation that had served Ural well in the second half of the previous season.
The 2041/42 campaign began away to Lokomotiv Moscow and Ural came out flying with 12 shots to the hosts’ one in the first half without converting. But the strikeforce of Petr Janousek and Vrbnjak bagged goals in the first ten minutes after the break to seal a deserved 2-0 win.
An injury crisis saw nine players injured or unfit for a trip to Arsenal Tula, including goalkeeper Hansen, and they unsurprisingly lost 2-0. But they bounced back to beat Akhmat 1-0 in a very poor match that was decided by exciting homegrown striker Oleg Malygin’s first goal of the season.
That teed up a big away day at champions and early leaders Zenit, where Ural won 4-0 last season. There was no repeat of that but Ural did well to earn a 2-2 draw despite Zenit having 18 shots to their seven, thanks to Vrbnjak and Malygin strikes. A more disappointing away performance saw them lose 1-0 at Dinamo Moscow but another solid home effort saw right-winger Yanislav Vasev bag a brace in a 3-0 success over Krylja Sovetov.
Vrbnjak and Yargin begin to fire
Back-to-back Vrbnjak doubles earned consecutive 2-2 draws at home to third-place Rubin then away to early pacesetters Rostov, where they were harshly reduced to 10 men. However, Zenit kept on winning, which left Ural a huge eight points off the top after just eight games.
Yarygin’s first league goal of the season nicked a big three points in a 1-0 win over Krasnodar before a second half Vrbnjak brace inspired a 2-0 win at Chelyabinsk. And Yarygin finally showed a glimpse of his true potential with a superb hat-trick and an assist at home to Yenisey, before the dodgy defence ridiculously gave the visitors a chance in a 4-3 win.
Ural were really beginning to tick, which showed as they thrashed Torpedo Moscow 5-1 away from home, led by a first-half Vrbnjak hat-trick. That came on the same day as Zenit finally lost, 2-0 at Krasnodar, to move Ural just three points behind the leaders.
Two more tough Moscow sides followed. Ural went to fourth-place Spartak, had Syurdzhiev sent off after an hour but held out for a 0-0. They then entertained third-place CSKA and were excellent as Yarygin created both goals for opposite winger Victor Gavrilin and a late Semenov screamer in a 2-0 win.
An easier game followed as next to bottom Anji came to town, but the visitors scored their only shot of the first half to take the lead. That clearly riled the Ural boys who fired back to win 6-3 – which set a new league record for highest-scoring match – led by a Vesev hat-trick. But how Hansen let three in, who knows.
Another Semenov screamer edged a 1-0 win at home to Lokomotiv – in which Ural had 16 shots to one. The same day, Zenit lost 1-0 at home to CSKA, which sent Ural top of the league in Latunov’s tenure on goal difference. Another 1-0 followed at Akhmat, this time a breakaway Vrbnjak goal decided as Ural again dominated with 18 shots to three.
The year ended with a much better match against Arsenal Tula, who were flying high in third having been predicted to finish 13th, in a snowy Yekaterinburg. Vasev, fresh from winning November player of the month, put Ural ahead after half an hour but Arsenal deservedly equalised after the break. However, they shot themselves in the foot with an own goal before Gavrilin scored a fantastic corner routing – think Beckham to Scholes vs. Bradford. Arsenal tucked home a penalty but Ural held on for a vital 3-2 win on the same day as Zenit drew 1-1 at Spartak.
That sent Ural into the winter break knowing they were well and truly in the title mix. With 12 league games remaining, they enjoyed a two point lead over champions Zenit and had a marginally better goal difference. Vrbnjak is the top scorer in the league with 12 and Yarygin has the second-most assists with eight. Interestingly, poor old Torpedo only have one point from 18 games!
Europa League group
Ural made their way through to the Europa League groups courtesy of beating Osijek 4-2 on aggregate in a qualifier. Group E saw three of Latunov’s former sides drawn together in Galatasaray, Legia and Rijeka, so he was hoping to get that as Ural were drawn in pot four. But alas, they ended up with Monaco, Red Star and Braga. Not much chance of points there!
However, they started well as Vrbnjak and Vasev earned a 2-1 win at home to Braga. Latunov rotated his squad and they were unlucky to lose at home to Monaco. Young winger Anatoly Dmitriev scored an absolute stunner inside 30 seconds of his debut at Red Star, who got a nonsense penalty and won 2-1. And a fully rotated side also lost very unfortunately 2-1 in Braga, who also only won with a late dodgy penalty.
The final group game was a trip to Monaco, which came 10 days after the league had wrapped up for Christmas and the squad had already ceased training! But apparently that’s the ideal preparation for a big game as Ural were magnificent. Malygin struck in the ninth minute before Yarygin doubled the lead on 27 minutes. For the third game in a row, they were done dirty with a dubious penalty but Ural responded superbly with Pakhomov scoring his first-ever goal on the hour mark and Malygin doubling his tally late on. It’s probably no exaggeration to say this was the biggest and best result in Ural’s history, which qualified them for the European Conference League knockouts.
Join us next time as Vladimir Latunov looks to take the title fight to Zenit. And could this be the end of his Soviet Surge?