Once the celebrations had come to pass, Daniil had to try and refocus on the task at hand. Knowing that they won the league, unexpectedly, it was now all about getting the recruitment and tactical philosophies spot on. Daniil knew that if he did well in these areas, then Khabarovsk would give themselves as good of a chance at staying up. The jump in quality was going to be night and day. It was going to be a long season, physically and mentally, but Daniil was relishing coming up against the big boys.
Before Daniil got to work on the pre-season work and recruitment, the board wanted to discuss the plan of action over the next 5 years; last season’s title win had changed the complete outlook of the club’s future, and the board felt it was a much-needed discussion to be had. Daniil was tasked to fight bravely against relegation this season, even the board was aware of the task at hand compared to the competition around the club, along with a Fifth Round appearance in the Russian Cup. Thereafter, the board are hoping to continue to remain in the Premier League should survival be possible this season. Daniil thought it was ambitious, but who was he to argue with the board? At the end of the day, he was just as determined to succeed in his latest challenge. The spanner in the works, however, was the board’s decision to amend the club culture – they decided that Daniil should be playing defensively solid & counter-attacking football. Counter-attacking sure, Daniil could manage that, but a defensive structure was new to him. Again, he was willing to rise to the challenge.
Given the news of defensive football, Daniil immediately got to work in amending his tried and trusted 4-2-3-1 into a back 5 that would still be competitive going forward. He also ensured that he could easily go back to his preferred tactic, and then decided to go about his business in the transfer market to ensure he signed players capable of both styles.
After letting go of a lot of players over the summer due to contracts expiring, Daniil knew he had to get faces in that would be able to replace the numbers leaving along with the quality. The difficulty in this was the finances. Khabarovsk was still financially poor in comparison to teams around them, and therefore, couldn’t compete with other clubs for the signature of a target. £370,000 in the transfer kitty to spend, along with £73,989 in wages per week, it was a massive improvement on the previous season’s budgets but still low to compete in Russia’s top flight. With that being said, Daniil managed to bring in 9 players for a total of £425,000 after shifting around some of the budgets.
Daniil revisited the CSKA Moscow squad for the third time since he took over the reins, and managed to bring in both Artem Golubev and Dmitry Menyailov. Artem was signed on a loan deal till the end of the season, with the view to be the rotation midfield option along with his ability to cover in defence should it be required. Dmitry on the other hand was a free transfer following the expiration of his contract, and would provide cover in goals should it be required – he was 18 after all and Daniil had a view with the next couple of years in mind. Ruslan Fischenko joins from Arsenal Tula for £205,000 and Daniil knew he had a solid midfield option here with Ruslan. 24 years of age, Ruslan had his best years in front of him, and Daniil was praying he would be able to get the best out of him to ensure survival this season.
Danila Khotulev joins Daniil from Zenit-2 for £135,000 to shore up the defence. Pershin was regularly out with injury and Daniil couldn’t hedge bets on his fitness all season. Danila could cover the left-back berth as well, but Daniil was more interested in his positional ability, along with his marking and tackling, at the young age of 22. Daniil rounded off his spending with the signature of young Ilya Gribakin from previous rivals Neftekhimik for a mere £6,000. Daniil saw this as a no-risk signing, knowing that Ilya will develop in the months to come and that Khabarovsk would make some profit off moving him on should it not work out.
A lot of players came to Khabarovsk for the start of pre-season so that Daniil could take a good look at them, but not many won a contract with the club. Daniil’s biggest goal was to bring in a player that would be able to fill the void left by Arkhipov, and Ivan Ignatiev looked the player to do just that. Ivan had been playing in the top flight with both Krasnodar and Rubin Kazan over the last 5 years, so brings experience to the squad, along with his ability to lead the line. Ömer Bayram swapped the Turkish heat for the Russian cold, leaving Galatasary for Khabarovsk on a free. 10 caps to his name for the Turkish national team, he is another player that offers more experience to the younger players of the squad, along with his ability to play both positions on the left side of the park. Rounding off the experience, an old Beram Kayal was convinced by Daniil to see out the season. Premier League experience along with European experience with Celtic, Beram would be a valuable head to have around the team and to have as cover in the middle of the park. Timur Abdrashitov then rounded off the signings for Daniil after leaving Torpedo Moscow during the summer and just offers more depth on either wing. Cheap wages and something to fall back on for a long season should injuries amount to anything, Daniil was happy enough with this signing knowing he was a bit shorter on the right than the left.
Russian Premier League
Daniil knew that this season was going to be a tough one. But it was more about weathering the storm and striking at the opportune moments. However, Daniil was handed probably one of the worst starts to a league campaign he could have asked for; Dinamo Moscow, Lokomotiv Moscow, Akhmat, Sochi and Zenit were his first five games in the top flight.
By the end of August, after a 3-0 defeat away to Zenit, Khabarovsk was sat bottom of the league with 0 points and a goal difference of -17. 19 goals shipped whilst only 2 scored by Ivan Ignatiev in a 5-2 defeat to Sochi, things were looking grim for Daniil. The 5 man defence meant his team were too passive as unable to shut anything off in the middle of the park, whilst having no out ball due to a lone striker. The board wanted this style of play, but Daniil couldn’t do hammerings all season. 5 defeats on the bounce? That was bad enough, never mind a full season of hammerings.
Daniil then decided to go against the board and revert back to his 4-2-3-1. He would still be playing their desired counter-attacking football, but this way he knew that his team would make a go of matches – if Khabarovsk were unable to see off the drop, then at least they went down trying to play easy-on-the-eye football.
Daniil knew that the change in the system would not result in immediate fireworks, and with the first two games of September against Rubin Kazan and CSKA Moscow, he knew that these were going to be free hits. Rubin easily saw off Khabarovsk 3-0, before CSKA put 4 past Daniil’s men, and Khabarovsk recorded their worst run of form in the club’s history – 7 defeats on the bounce. But Daniil could take positives from this. The defeat to CSKA Moscow was the end of a hellish start to the club’s campaign. Only Krasnador and Rostov waited, and there was a couple of games in between them.
Arsenal Tula then arrived in Khabarovsk and against all odds, Daniil’s side managed to edge out a 1-0 victory. Ivan Ignatiev got his third for the season in the 26th minute, and a brilliant defensive performance saw out a vital three points and a rise off the bottom perch to 15th. Was this the turning point in fortunes for Daniil? Was this formation going to ensure that Khabarovsk was going to be competitive against some of the bigger teams? He put that to the test against Krasnodar, and it was certainly a story of cutting edge. It was a close game, Daniil felt unfortunate not to come away with a point at the very least as his younger experienced side went toe-to-toe with Krasnodar. Jhon Córdoba scored two in two minutes from nothing shortly after the half-time interval and whilst there was a faint light at the end of the tunnel for Daniil, Khabarovsk couldn’t build on Denis Prokopiev’s goal in the final 15 minutes. But for Daniil, there were positives to take from this. The 4-2-3-1 is working. His side is creating chances. His side is competing and that was all he could ask for. After this game, things looked up.
Krylia Sovetov rounded off September’s run of games, and one heck of a performance from Khabarovsk saw them off with ease – running out 4-1 victors by the end of the game whilst raising out of the automatic relegation spots into the play-off spots. A lot of football to be played still. But Daniil was optimistic that he could at least steer the side to the play-offs and take his chances there. 10 games played with 6 points on the board, Daniil had seen worse starts to a top-flight campaign before.
The final five games of the first half of the season were bumpy and filled with many ups and downs. Khimki, Rostov, Baltika, Alania and Spartak Moscow were the remaining teams and Daniil was ideally looking for 6 points out of this run of games; targetting Khimki and Baltika as the must-wins. However, a poor final 15 minutes in Khimki let three points slip away as Khabarovsk fell to a 2-1 defeat, not the ideal start for Daniil. A shock 2-2 draw against Rostov was a major high for the month, as the players showed great character to come from behind twice to salvage a point before Baltika were beaten 2-1 the following weekend, again coming from behind to run out 2-1 winners. 4 points out of 9 for October, but it was Daniil’s time to try and weather an impending storm as Alania and Spartak awaited before the fixtures reverted back to the start. A strong second-half defensive performance ensure the spoils were split 1-1 with Alania, as youngster Pouria Hashemi scored his first goal for the club after being called up for the senior team after impressive performances for the B team. To end off the first half of the season, Khabarovsk travelled to Moscow for the first of 3 games against Moscow sides to play against Spartak knowing that a shock would be near on impossible. However, with that being said, Daniil was delighted with the spirited performance from his team as they fell narrowly to a 1-0 defeat thanks to Jordan Larsson, a result that certainly raised many eyebrows in Moscow.
Very much a difficult introduction to the Russian Premier League for Daniil, but with high spells, he was certainly steering them in the right direction. Orenburg and Ufa were relegated last season with 22 and 25 points respectively, whilst Krylia and Baltika held the play-off spots with 26 and 29 points respectively; certainly not a lot splitting the bottom 4 teams last season. Daniil now had a target in mind, and he felt it was very much possible.
Daniil knew that whatever he did in the league, he had to have a good cup run in behind him as well. Knowing that it would be difficult to juggle between league defeats and cup runs, he wanted to make sure the board’s expectation of the fifth round was met for the third season running. After winning the league, Khabarovsk went immediately into the group stages (fourth round) of the Russian Cup, and Daniil felt they were given a rather favourable draw with Veles Moscow and Neftekhimik – the media thought otherwise.
Khabarovsk fate was in their hands after Veles Moscow recorded a shock 1-0 victory of Neftekhimik, meaning Daniil’s boys had to beat Veles to stand any chance of going through. A very poor first-half performance saw Veles lead by a single goal going into half-time and Daniil knew that this was grim looking. The timing of this game was on the back of 1 victory in 9, previous games had shown it was difficult for Khabarovsk to get back into games. A couple of half-time substitutes saw Daniil’s side take control of the game, and Galkin ensured that the possession counted when he squared the game within 10 minutes of the second half. From there on, it was all Khabarovsk and Matsukatov added two to seal the points. Joint top of the group with Veles Moscow, and ahead thanks to goal difference, it was going to take some effort from Neftekhimik to overturn this and qualify.
Knowing that avoiding a heavy defeat would be enough to see Khabarovsk go to the fifth round once again, Daniil wanted more. He knew this game was there for the taking. Coming into this game on the back of an impressive, and shock, 2-2 draw with Rostov and a 2-1 victory over Baltika, confidence was high. However, Neftekhimik ensured that Daniil was brought back down to earth with an early goal, and he knew he had a game on his hands. Khabarovsk started to play some nice football until the ultimate sucker punch happened. One long kick from the Neftekhimik keeper was dealt with by Grachov, who headed it back the way to his partner Martynov. And then a colossal breakdown between Martynov and Latyshonok saw the goalie scrambling across his line to reach a wayward back-pass. But he couldn’t get there in time. Daniil was furious that his side let this game slip away from them. Yes, they were still in the driving seat, but with the game to chase and a confident Neftekhimik coming onto them, it was going to be a long hour. Thankfully for Daniil, Denis Prokopiev got one back for Khabarovsk, but they couldn’t kick on from this and grab a second to tie the game. A lot nervier than what Daniil had planned for, but Khabarovsk had done enough to qualify for the fifth round where they will travel to Sochi.
A very eye-opening 15 games in the top-flight for Daniil who knew he was really up against higher quality managers. At the end of the day, some of the managers here have managed at the top table for long periods of their career, Daniil had only been a manager for 3 years and just got his Continental C Licence in the bag. His reputation in Russia was on the up. He could only get better. Daniil just hoped that his first 15 games here were going to be a massive learning curve to keep Khabarovsk in the top-flight come May 2025.