Daniil knew that Baltika was beginning to go places. The Russian oblast was becoming more recognisable across Europe, and domestic rivals knew they had a new competitor on the scene. After finishing 21 points behind league winners Dinamo Moscow, Daniil knew that recruitment was going to be key this summer as he looked to build a side capable of shocking not only the nation but the continent.
As always, Daniil knew that Selimović, Jiménez and Dyulgerov were going to be the crucial components to keep a hold of over the summer window, but adding quality throughout the squad was the hardest part – Baltika struggled with a thin squad last season and this was something Daniil wanted to rectify this season.
It was a busy summer for Baltika with £10 million being spent, a new club record. But Daniil was entrusted with that budget, and he wanted to stretch it as much as he could. In through the door first was Timur Sagitov, who had previously played under Daniil before, and Adam Asaev. Having fallen out of favour at league rivals Krasnodar, Daniil swooped in for Timur for only £600K, whereas the young 16-year-old talented central defender set Baltika back £1 million to secure his development – and Daniil knew that should his development be spot on, he could be a massive coup in years to come.
Los Angeles FC was determined to try and keep a hold of their Brazilian right-back in Alexsander, but once bids were received from his home nation, Daniil knew that he couldn’t pass up the opportunity of signing a quality full-back. The 25-year-old Brazilian joined up with Daniil after the two teams agreed on a deal worth £1.4 million and Alexsander swapped the lavish lifestyle of LA for the colder European climate.
Focusing on deals much closer to home, Daniil looked to end his spending at rival clubs. Victor Sidorov was the first in from CSKA Moscow after being made available for transfer at £1.9 million – a deal too good to turn down, especially for home-grown rules. Victor wanted to be promised he would become a regular starter once Tilen Jazbec left the club, but the young Slovenian’s skillset would allow for Daniil to drop him into defence and start Victor – a win-win in Daniil’s eyes. The biggest deal of the window was saved for last when Rubin Kazan elected to part ways with Sergey Sokolov. With an abundance of talent and the room to truly develop into a star player, 19-year-old Sergey was signed for £2.5 million up-front and a further £2.5 million over 3 years. Some thought Daniil had gone a bit crazy with this signing, but the sheer potential was more than enough to secure the services of the next up and coming striker for Russia now.
Daniil was soon alerted of the availability of young Spaniard Jorge Félix who had been released by Atletico Madrid. Being touted by some of Europe’s elite, Daniil asked the board if he could approach the midfielder, and expected this to be rejected immediately – Jorge committed his short-term future with the club by signing a 3-year deal with a release clause of £19.75 million inserted for good measure. Daniil was astounded but delighted that Jorge would be a Baltika player, and that is another class proposition on his side that could change the season outlook.
Daniil was still on the hunt for a left full-back, but he was delighted with how his squad was starting to take shape for the current season. Another younger Russian in the shape of Sergey Fomin would join Daniil in January 3039 after agreeing on a deal worth £500K, along with a further 4 youngsters from South America, between June 2038 and January 2040 due to their ages, and Daniil knew that Jefferson Castro, Sebastián Calero, Walter Sandoval and Victor Rodríguez were going to bring so much to the future of this club.
Could Daniil and Baltika break the grip Dinamo Moscow had on Russian football? They had won 7 out of the last 10 league titles, were we going to see a changing of the guard?
26th July 2037
I am writing this on the team bus en route to the Nizhniy Novgorod Stadium. I have the majority of my squad still available to myself; Rodrigo Jiménez is still away on Gold Cup duty with Costa Rica, and Loris Viganotti has not travelled due to an ankle ligament injury. Looking around at the players on the bus, I must admit I am quietly confident that this could be a great season for the club. There is still so much to do for the club and city, but steps are being put in place to ensure that this club strives for success in generations to come. No bids for any of my players have been tabled thus far, but I know that this is inevitable, especially as deadline day draws closer and closer. The club’s bank balance is looking healthier as the years go by, and with a new European adventure to take part in this year, the financial side of the club is going to be the healthiest they have ever been. With the right exposure, we may end up with the same financial backing as Dinamo in the years to come. Our biggest season to date starts today. I just hope that it is not a delusional bias.
31st August 2037
The first international break of the season, and now is a good time to write down the next update in my journal I feel. The domestic season is only 6 games old for my side, but I feel like we have turned a corner in our mental block; yes we started slow and sluggish, grinding out results, but it is a good sign when you get 3 points despite not playing well. Conversely, at the same point as last season, we have performed better – 16 points after 6 games compared to 13 after 6 last season. 15 goals scored compared to 12, and, more importantly, 4 goals conceded compared to 8. The signs were all pointing in the direction I wanted them to be pointing in, especially when we have been challenged already by some of our rivals. CSKA, Zenit and Krasnodar have all visited Kaliningrad so far, and only Zenit has left with a point following a 2-2 draw where we fought back from 2-0. My boys managed to see off CSKA narrowly with a 2-1 victory before Krasnodar were blown away 5-0. However, my biggest worry from last season has returned; we are relying too much on Selimović for the goals. He has 8 league goals already, the next closest is Hallace with 3. My midfielders need to get their shooting boots on and contribute as well, Dyulgerov has struggled massively this season but he has had a couple of knocks – I hope his fortunes change.
In other matters, we did find out our group for the Europa League. I’m excited to visit Valencia and see the city, but I am there for footballing reasons. This draw is perhaps one of the more favourable ones we could have asked for, I do fancy our chances to qualify for the knockouts. Confirmation arrived that we enter the Russian Cup after the winter break which is always welcoming; we have unfinished business in this cup and it is one I am itching to bring back to the city.
Finally, I still have a full squad at my disposal. The only casualty in terms of transfers, thus far, was Maan Mohamad – he approached me feeling that he isn’t good enough to compete with the players in his position, which is a fair assessment. For squad registration purposes, it makes my life that bit easier having a player that is willing to go, and he has my best wishes in his next venture with AS Saint-Etienne. The club also get to record a hefty profit on this one, Mohamad was one of my first signings on a free transfer and Saint-Etienne are purchasing him for £3.4 million. I just hope that I am not disturbed when I arrive in Sweden about bids on some of my other players…
11th November 2037
Me again. It’s been a couple of hectic months and I am just finding the time to check into my journal as I await transportation to go back on international duty. The last time I checked in, we had just dispatched of rivals Krasnodar, and I was en route to Sweden for the World Cup Qualifiers; what a waste of a journey that was! We slumped to a 2-1 defeat without really getting out of first gear, which was infuriating as it had given Sweden brief control of the group due to goal difference; we actually struggled against Gibraltar only winning 2-0, Sweden, in comparison, won 10-0. With both nations tied on 10 points, we had the joys of visiting Luxembourg where we won emphatically 8-1 – a late consolation goal ensured Sweden remained top by 2 goals. I wasn’t prepared to worry about topping our group at this stage; we only had Gilbraltar, Bulgaria, Hungary and Luxembourg left to play which realistically, should be 12 points and a hatful of goals.
Haris Memic was the subject of a loan bid from Fiorentina, who were looking to give him game-time that I couldn’t quite justify at this moment in time. With the Dutchman leaving for Italy, I had to go out shopping for a goalkeeper that would slot into the team nicely, and thought of none better than Sergey Gavrilov – the young Russian goalkeeper had been a part of my International squads and when the opportunity to loan him was presented, I grabbed it with both hands.
However, back to league matters, I knew that there was a spanner in the works coming – I just didn’t anticipate it as soon as it happened. A big run of 7 games varying between the Premier League and the Europa League; Dinamo Moscow the biggest game of the 7. A visit to Shinnik was first up, and in what should have been a bread and butter game, my boys couldn’t take their chances and we were hit with an 85th-minute sucker punch. My analysts were keen to report to me that we had an xG of 2.32; they were quickly told where to go. Thankfully, the players reacted correctly by winning their next three games against Astana (5-1), Rostov (3-1) and Lokomotiv Moscow (1-0) before a massive top of the table clash with Dinamo Moscow. Dinamo was 3 points ahead thanks to the shock result at Shinnik, and Daniil was keen to keep this battle tight. It was a tight game for only 13 minutes, Dinamo took the lead out of nothing and I was furious. My attempts to jeer up the players looked to fall on deaf ears, the players’ heads were falling and when Dinamo scored on the brink of half-time, I knew that this was going to be a long second half. A goalkeeping error made it 3 before Dinamo signed off with a fourth, it was a horrific result to look back on, but I knew that we couldn’t mull over the result – there would be plenty of opportunities to come throughout the season to make amends. Baltika 0 Dinamo 4. We move on.
I had two further games to manage before heading back off on international duty with Russia, one against Admira Wacker in our Europa League group and Chaika Peschanokopskoe – a side we were unbeaten against in our last 6 meetings. In my eyes, it was two favourable games to rebuild the confidence before the players travel the world to represent their nations, and the right opportunity to remind Dinamo that we weren’t going away anytime soon. One of our more professional performances in Austria, saw us return back to Kaliningrad with 3 points after Selimović grabbed another two goals for the season, and Chaika couldn’t take advantage of any European hangover as they were swatted aside 3-1. 5 victories and 2 defeats, I shouldn’t be disheartened by the form but the defeat to Shinnik was still grinding my gears 6 games later.
A nice break from league duties was next as I had the chance to mull things over my Baltika squad, do I try and tweak a couple of things to really ramp up the pressure on Dinamo? Or do I trust the system I have had in place since the opener against Nizhniy Novgorod? It was hard to argue for change, but it did come with the risk of becoming stale. Whilst I was debating this, Gibraltar was in Krasnodar, and I knew that my national squad had to hammer them to regain control of automatic World Cup qualification. There was a lot of talk from my players during the week, which I was completely against, but thankfully it did not come back to haunt us as we romped to victory and went back to the top of the group. Bulgaria was going to be a tricky tie, however, especially after the 2-2 draw in Russia during the summer, but I had faith that the players would get the job done, and get they certainly did that with an impressive 2-0. Full control of the group with the two upcoming games against Hungary and Luxembourg, it looks as though we will be heading to South Africa for the 2038 edition of the World Cup.
I elected to meet up with my Baltika squad in Yenisey after the trip to Bulgaria, there was only a matter of a day or two and it gave me enough time to watch back on performances and training. I decided to stick with my original tactics for the foreseeable until we come off the rails a bit – if it ain’t broke don’t fix it as they say. As the squad arrived at the team hotel in Yenisey, I was asked for a word by Italian Loris Viganotti, the midfielder I signed from Bologna for a mere £99K. As part of his transfer, he was asked to be promised to play as a ball-winning midfielder, and it took him a season and a half to finally moan about playing as a box-to-box midfielder. Knowing that he wasn’t getting any younger, and I had better options in the middle of the park, I was keen to get rid of him to free up another foreign space, but I was astounded when Brescia offered £4.1 million upfront and a further £2.64 million in add-ons. I wonder if I am making a mistake here in letting him go, but yet another fantastic return on a player that had rarely featured this season.
Thankfully, word of Viganotti hadn’t broken to the side and didn’t become a distraction as we continued our run from before the international break; 4 wins (Yenisey, Spartak Moscow, Krylia Sovetov and Valencia) and 2 draws (Rubin Kazan and Valencia) ensured that the pressure was piled on Dinamo Moscow, who had a bumpy spell of their own.
Before the international break, Dinamo fought back against Krasnodar to salvage a point, before losing 2-0 to Rostov and a 1-1 stalemate with Zenit. Coupled with our results during this run of 6, the gap had been reduced at the top to a single point, making the 3-3 draw with my former employers all the more annoying – we were 3-1 up after 41 minutes. However, it is a marathon and not a sprint, and bringing the gap back to a point at this stage of the season is progress, and I certainly had the club on the right path. However, time for me to wrap up this update. I have been typing away at this for the last 20 minutes and my train is now pulling into the station for boarding. Next up, Hungary and I somehow doubt that the Bulgarians are going to do us any favours against the Swedes and their damn Ikea flat-pack furniture.
27th February 2038
It’s 10PM on the eve of our first competitive game back. I’m in my hotel bedroom, unable to shut off from my thoughts ahead of our game against Metallurg Lipetsk. Unable to think straight. The second half of the season was going to be massive; my team find themselves in an unlikely title race with Dinamo, despite the media predicting a 5th place finish at the start of the season. But first, I need to recap the last few weeks of 2037.
When I last left off, I was boarding a train ahead of our World Cup qualifier in Hungary, knowing that we were in complete control of our destiny. If Sweden lost and we won, we would be going to South Africa with a game to spare, but I knew that this was going to go down to the wire. As we recorded a 3-0 victory in Budapest, the Swedes could only manage a draw against Bulgaria, meaning we were 99.9% certain of qualifying automatically for the World Cup – Luxembourg was our final game. It was finally confirmed after a resounding 7-0 victory in Moscow, and I was looking forward to leading the nation out in the World Cup.
It was then straight back to domestic football for me as I had to navigate three more league games and our two final group games in the Europa League before the players set off on their winter break. Thankfully, there was no international hangover to be had, as my players managed to go unbeaten in this run of 5 games, winning 4 (including both our Europa League games to finish as group winners) and a draw. Dinamo on the other hand matched everything we did, and so we went into the winter break a point off the pace knowing that we had to keep our star players during the transfer window.
The beautiful thing about being involved in a football club is that the fans only see one side of the story. I adore our fans, but the reaction to some of the decisions made throughout the window was baffling. We were not in a position where we had to sell. But, if a bid came in for a player that I felt was beneficial for the club in any way possible, then it was something I was going to seriously consider. Viganotti left immediately due to the Italian transfer window opening, and he was not the only one to go out the door. Ivaylo Dyulgerov was next to leave, which was a shock to some of the fans. My shadow striker was in phenomenal form the previous season, but his current form was miles off the pace. 1 goal in 13 games, and a torrid time with injuries, I had to make the call. He wasn’t getting any younger, and when a bid was tabled for £650K from Clermont, I had to cash in on him now before risk losing him on a free. Next up was the biggest backlash. Club captain Clifford Mubili was subject to a £1.9M bid from Valencia, and with 6 months on his contract, I knew I had to cash in on him now. With significant talented central defenders at the club in the shape of Mamin & Asaev, it was time to move away from sentiments. The final transfer went a bit under the radar, as he never got a consistent run in the team, but young Slovenian Zoran Brumen moved onto Mura for a fee of £1.4M. With the arrival of Alexsander, and Fabio Suarez as his backup, it was wrong to keep a talented prospect rotting away; we did make a healthy profit on him after signing him on a free. In terms of arrivals, it was only one to boast about as we signed Mexican Pablo Gonazlez from Manchester United for £6M – I wanted to bring in someone of high quality during this window as a backup plan should Selimović end up leaving. He was subject to a lot of bids throughout the window, but no Champions League club met his release clause of £15M and he was happy to wait for that to happen. However, it was the day before Europa League registration when the panic began. Tilen Jazbec was highly sought after across Europe, and with a £20M release clause for Champions League clubs, I knew it was a matter of time. Manchester United came calling, and with them playing in the Europa League, they had a bid accepted by the board for £38.5M. I was a bit cheeky in complaining to the board, but I knew he was going to be vital to any success this season; the board also shared this view and then rejected the bid. That, however, did not send Manchester United away, they soon returned with a bid of £56M which even I couldn’t argue against. To make matters worse, Champions League Borussia Dortmund lodged a £20M bid, but Jazbec declined both clubs’ contract offers; hoping to get a move to his preferred destination of Arsenal. By the end of the window, I had achieved the plan of holding onto our brightest talents for the rest of the season at least – a World Cup could instigate a lot of interest in the same players but that was a future problem.
My focus is on the here and now. And tomorrow we take to the field against Metallurg Lipetsk. We have a lot of football to be played over March and April thanks to our tie against Rostov in the Russian Cup, and Sporting Clube de Portugal in the Second Knockout Round of the Europa League; who knows, we may even have a tie after this. I will try to check in soon, but my focus is needed elsewhere…
30th May 2038
It is the night of the 30th of May, and I’m still sitting in the Ufa Community Stadium in the aftermath of the Russian Cup final. Heartbroken. Gutted. The second half of the season is one to be forgotten about ASAP, I know where I need to improve Baltika in the summer now, but I suppose it is best to bring you up to speed on things.
With 12 games to go in the league, and still a sole point behind Dinamo, we had to make sure that we remained resolute and stubborn – Dinamo last dropped points on the 31st of October so it was unlikely they would drop many at the business end of the season. We started off with a professional performance against Metallurg Lipetsk winning 2-0 before dropping valuable 3 points against Zenit. With Dinamo surging four points clear at the summit, I knew that the season was over unless we could hit form in the next three games before facing our title rivals. Lokomotiv Moscow, Krasnodar and Shinnik were brushed aside which gave me a bit of confidence, but the boys just capitulated in the final 15 minutes against Dinamo and that was the end of our title push. With Dinamo going 7 clear, we had to ask so much from the teams yet to play them for a second time; Dinamo then went on to drop two points in their remaining 6 games. My team, on the other hand, were up and down like a yo-yo, which then hampered all chances of Champions League football.
The quest for Champions League football went down to the final day, as we were three points ahead of Zenit, but they had the better head-to-head record against us this season. As we slumped to a poor defeat, Zenit managed to get the job over the line, and sneaked ahead on the last day of the season. We were in control all season, and to throw it away on the final day of the season? I felt physically sick.
Elsewhere, we travelled to Lisbon for the first leg of our last-16 tie with Sporting Clube de Portugal where a 38-year-old Francisco Trincão inspired the hosts to a 2-1 victory, making it difficult for ourselves to progress. However, I had nothing to worry about it seems, as an emphatic first-half performance turned the tie on its head, and we progressed 5-2 over two legs. Our reward? A quarter-final showdown with Sampdoria, fresh off the back of knocking out Zenit 2-1 in the previous round. The Italians, however, proved to be far too strong in the first leg and coasted to a 3-0 victory, before holding out for a 2-2 draw in the second leg. 5-2 on aggregate, and our European adventure ends at the Quarters. I couldn’t be too disappointed, as the quality of the teams in the competiton dwarfed us. But I was disappointed with the manner of the exit.
This brings me to the final competition and one that brings us up to the present day. The Russian Cup. I was keen to bring the trophy back to Kaliningrad as it is one trophy that has gotten away from the club since I took over, but we have had no luck. Following our most recent defeat to Zenit in the league, we played host to Rostov in the Fifth Round, and we were never really in charge of the game. However, a brace from Selimović was enough to put our name into the hat for the next round, where we would square off with a resurgent CSKA Moscow – who were on a high after appointing former player Alexey Berezutskiy as their manager. Coming off the back of sore defeats against Sampdoria and Dinamo, CSKA knew that this was a good time to play us, and it showed. CSKA raced to a 2 goal advantage inside 22 minutes and I knew it was going to be one of those days. The players were locked in the changing room with me at half-time and I made them completely aware of how I felt – it was embarrassing that we were losing in the manner that we were, but the game was not over with yet. A goal early in the second half changes everything, and Selimović duly delivered that goal, before grabbing an assist just minutes later. Back in the game and on the front foot. Selimović rubbed further salt into the CSKA wounds, and just as it looked as though we were going to the Semi-Finals, CSKA popped up with a goal in the last minute of injury time to send the game to penalties. Gavrilov was the one to take all the plaudits after the shoot-out however, as the young keeper saved 2 CSKA penalties as we triumphed 4-2 on penalties.
It would be our luck that we were likely to be paired with Dinamo or Zenit at this stage of the competition, and when Dinamo’s name came out the hat straight after ourselves, I looked to the skies searching for mercy. This is the first season that I hadn’t beaten either Zenit or Dinamo at all, and being a superstitious guy, I knew that it was a bad omen. However, the game didn’t go as I had thought it would – Selimović was at it again to put us in the lead in the first half, and doubled his own tally on the day shortly after the interval. 2-0 to us, and Dinamo hadn’t really threatened by this point. I knew a storm was coming, and it hit hard. Dinamo pulled 2 back in the 81st and 84th minute, and just as it looked as though all life had been sucked out of my players, Pablo Gonzalez popped up with an all-important winning goal. Baltika 3 Dinamo 2. Baltika was going to their first-ever Russian Cup final.
I was proud as punch leading my side out at the Ufa Community Stadium for the final – it was an occasion to remember. We had rolled with the punches all season, and came into this game on the back of some sketchy form, especially after Zenit just robbed the Champions League place. But I knew that we were capable of going toe-to-toe with Zenit in a one-off game, it was just all about taking chances. Selimović fired us into the lead with his 43rd goal of the season after 10 minutes, and in asking the players for a big 10 minutes to weather the storm, we buckled. Not once, but twice. Zenit had turned the game on its head and was in the driving seat at half-time. But it was one goal. I knew that we could haul ourselves back into the game, using CSKA as motivation, but the players were dead on their feet. It had been a long and punishing season, there was just nothing left. Zenit put the game out of sight with a third halfway through the second half, and I slumped back down into the dugout. Zenit 3 Baltika 1.
And here I am. The team coach has taken the players back to the hotel, but I wanted some time to myself to gather my thoughts. Reflect. And plan. It was a painful defeat to take, but it was the ammunition needed to propel this side forward. But the season wasn’t all doom and gloom. A new adventure in a higher quality European competition? Quarter-finalists. Russian Cup? Runners-up, okay no one remembers the losers in a final, but it is significant progress. The league? We finished 21 points off the pace last season; this season it was 13. We were still dropping silly points here and there, but that can be controlled. Recruitment is always key, and I was being trusted with only £6.63 million initially. Players would have to go to build this war chest back up. Just as well I have the World Cup finals to jet off to in 2 weeks, I can get my early shopping down, and my own players can showcase their talents on the biggest stage in the world. Season 2038/39, our preparation begins now.