In the two months since billionaire owner Suleiman Kerimov slashed the budget, Russian side Anzhi have dropped like an anvil down a mineshaft. After eleven games, the league's once title and European contenders are bottom and winless with just six points. If a club ever needed an in-form striker, it's them.
In every sense, six-foot-eight-inch Ivorian Lacina Traore is one of the club’s last big stars. Twelve of his team mates exited during a summer fire sale, leaving the 23-year-old eyeing the winter transfer window to join the diaspora.
Busy agent Dmitry Selyuk has hinted at interest from Manchester United and Zenit, with Liverpool and Juventus also apparently keen. Russian newspaper "Izvestia" thinks a price tag of around €16 million could be a stumbling block, though this should be set against paying up a contract with a want-away forward that is valid until 2016.
Traore's Russian adventure began in February 2011, when Dan Petrescu – then coach of promoted Kuban – bought him for a club record €6 million from Romanian side Cluj. He scored 18 goals in the extended 2011-12 season, becoming the League's third top scorer behind Seydou Doumbia and Aleksandr Kerzhakov, and leading his yo-yo side to a thoroughly respectable eighth.
This prompted Anzhi to sign Traore for around €18 million in June 2012, opening his account with the winner against his former club. More memorably, he also netted in the 1–0 defeat of Liverpool in last season's Europa League. Traore is strong, two-footed though naturally favours his left, and agile for his height. His overall Russian Premier League record is 12 goals in 24 games, and one from three this season.
The giant striker is set to miss Anzhi’s second Europa League Group K game against Tottenham in Moscow, due to a shoulder injury picked up in their goalless opener at Moldovan side FC Sheriff.
Yet if Traore could return to showcase his skills while helping prevent his club slip into the domestic second tier, the next three months might be mutually beneficial. It remains doubtful if a top English side would gamble on a player whose pedigree includes Romania and Russia. However, Ivorians hope Traore will become the next Didier Drogba. So does Traore. If he does, then €16 million may be a bargain.
If it's tough at the bottom, it's tense at the top, with five points separating leaders Zenit and defending champions CSKA in fourth. The Armymen stuttered in September, twice losing 3-0 – at Bayern Munich in the Champions League and in the derby at gleeful rivals Spartak – as well as a tepid goalless draw with Anzhi and an embarrassing 2-0 defeat at then-bottom Terek.
CSKA have a class act in Japan midfielder Keisuke Honda. The six-foot dyed-blond playmaker is left-footed, can play on either wing and in the hole, and is a free-kick specialist. Since joining the club in December 2006, the 27-year-old has won the Russian Premier League and Super Cup once, and the Russian Cup twice. He has also scored 26 goals and made 26 assists in 113 games overall.
However, this season Honda’s fortunes are matching his team's, scoring the first in CSKA’s 2-1 opening day win at Lokomotiv, then a brace in the 3-0 Super Cup victory over Zenit – and then no more.
Conversely, he’s been banging the goals in for Japan, ensuring the Blue Samurai have qualified for the 2014 World Cup – their fifth straight finals appearance – the second country after hosts Brazil. During the last World Cup, Arsenal manager Arsene Wenger hailed Honda as a “genius” and said Japan’s play revolved around him.
Finally, after being linked with a move away from Moscow for the past three years, Honda’s contract is due to expire at the end of this year. He has been free to talk to other clubs since the summer and – despite reported interest from Everton, Liverpool, the Gunners and Tottenham – the big story was an imminent move to AC Milan. However, this appeared to break down over price and negotiating etiquette.
The latest rumours are that CSKA are planning to offer Honda a two-year extension, while Rossoneri fans hope they can pick him up on a free transfer, despite being Cup-tied for the Champions League. The player himself is keen to move to a big European club as he values improving his overall game over boosting his annual salary.
As well as being in the prime of his career, the English-speaking blond winger also carries plenty of marketing potential. The advent of Park Ji-Sung and Shinji Kagawa to Old Trafford were Far East commercial boons in growing the global brand of Manchester United.
Twenty years ago, Japan remained one of the last great bastions for football to conquer. Then in 1993, the J-League kicked-off. Nine years later, the country co-hosted the World Cup with South Korea. As yet, Russia lags behind the West in exploiting the commercial value of footballers. Yet for Honda…there must be quite a few chairmen out there who realise the power of dreams.