Group F of the Champions League might just turn out to be the best of them all. A powerful threesome, led by defending champion Barcelona and Lionel Messi.
The group also consists of perennial contender Internazionale, and Dynamo Kiev. But then, the afterthought of those teams is Russian Premier League champions Rubin Kazan.
For most Western football fans, this team is an unknown, and they couldn't find Kazan on a map even if the dot was highlighted. But, those fans do know that Internazionale are a great team and Dynamo Kiev has Andriy Shevchenko. Those two pieces of information are good enough to rule out the unknown.
Don't sleep on Rubin Kazan.
Even by Russian standards, Rubin are a new club. They never once played in the Soviet First Division, and were only promoted for the first time to the Russian Premier League in 2003. They struggled so mightily that in 1993, they were relegated to the Third Division and stripped of professional status.
But as the Tartar capital grows in prominence, so does Rubin. Only five years after being promoted into the Premier League, they won the title in 2008 with three weeks to spare.
The club command plans to have a new stadium built by 2013 that holds 48,000 spectators. Although the original design was scrapped, the arena will still be located on the banks of the Kazanka River, a perfect place for football.
And they are looking even better in 2009.
After 21 matches, they carry a record of 14-4-3, have never lost on the road and lead the league by six points. They also field two of Russia's most prolific scorers in 24-year-old center forward Alexander Bukharov and Argentine midfielder Alejandro Damian Dominguez.
Both players have tallied 13 goals on the season so far. Bukharov, who was recently called up to the Russian national team for the first time, has two hat tricks in his last ten appearances. Dominguez has scored in his past seven outings.
As impressive as those two have been, the team chemistry and talent have came together extraordinarily well since the one month break in July. They have won six straight games by at least two goals, most recently putting on an awe-inspiring display at Luzhniki Stadium in Moscow.
In a match-up between Russia's top two teams, Rubin and Spartak Moscow, over 60,000 screaming Spartak fans filled the stands in hopes of seeing their team overtake Rubin for the league lead. To say the absolute least, that didn't happen.
Here are some brief match highlights: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=W72dm7HnzHM.
Kazan, in green, got out to an early start off an incredible goal from Russian international and team captain Sergei Semak, and romped to a 3-0 away victory.
More recently, they peppered Saturn Moscow 5-1 at Kazan's Central Stadium, making the second consecutive time that they put five behind the Aliens. Rubin scores at a different pace, leading the league in goals scored by a large margin.
But they also play stout defense, as they have only allowed a mere 14 goals all season. With vastly underrated keeper Sergei Ryzhikov, the defense has a distinct South American flair. They have even employed the first Spanish player in Russian history, when they added central defender César from Racing Santander in the winter.
They are playing their best football of the year at just the right time, and don't be too shocked to see them progress through the group stage.
But how do they do it?
Kazan has never been a team that has a ton of big-name players. Although they are the Russian champions, only one player from their roster starts for the national team. They have, by a fairly large margin, the lowest team salary of any team in the group and have no household names.
They play with a lot of grit and have a perfect blend of creativity and physicality. When they visited St. Petersburg a month ago, they lost a player to a red card with 25 minutes left to play, and still managed to get a draw with Zenit.
The club heads to the Ukraine on Wednesday to face Dynamo, and it would be somewhat surprising to see them come away with anything less than full points. But the true test will come at the end of the month when Samuel Eto'o and Internazionale head to Kazan for an extremely important match.
The Milan side could be facing a must-win situation if they fall to Barcelona, and two losses right off the start could be fatal to their chances.
Rubin Kazan are here to stay.
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