Miracle worker Kurban Berdyev a tough rival for Jose Mourinho
Jose Mourinho might have good memories of his previous meetings with Kurban Berdyev, because he went on to win his last European trophy that season. The Special One's Inter were drawn against Rubin Kazan in the 2009-10 Champions League group stage. The Milanese, who thoroughly deserved to lose on their trip to Russia, somehow managed to salvage a 1-1 draw after Mario Balotelli was sent off. On the final matchday, Inter needed to beat Rubin at San Siro, and did so thanks to goals by Samuel Eto'o and the very same Balotelli. Mourinho went through at Berdyev's expense, and eventually lifted the cup.
That season was remarkable for Berdyev as well. It was his first major experience on the international stage, and he made huge headlines. In October 2009, Rubin went to Camp Nou and won 2-1 at Barcelona with an outstanding display of tough defence and clinical counter-attacks. They also played a goalless draw at home against the Catalans, meaning that Pep Guardiola was unable to beat Berdyev.
The success continued in latter seasons. In 2011, Rubin won 1-0 at home against Tottenham in Europa League and finished ahead of their rivals in the group. In the 2012-13 season, Inter were thrashed 3-0 in Kazan in the same competition, and then Berdyev proceeded to outwit Diego Simeone and beat Atletico Madrid at Vicente Calderon. The Russians were eventually eliminated in the quarter-finals after two closely fought games against Chelsea, including a 3-2 win at home.
In short, Berdyev turned Rubin into a force to be reckoned with in Europe, and that was a huge feat. The club were totally anonymous even by Russian standards, and never played in the top division before the Turkmenian arrived in 2001. He built the team from scratch, and won the championship title in 2008. Some criticized Rubin for a rather boring style, but they defended their crown in 2009 with much a more attacking brand of football. They outscored the entire league with 62 goals in 30 matches that season and proved that Berdyev is flexible.
Rubin were not poor in those days, but they couldn't compete with the financial power of Zenit and the Moscow clubs. Berdyev usually purchased little-known players and made them fulfil a potential that even the stars themselves were unaware they possessed. His tactical instructions are so precise that every player knows what to do in every situation. No coach in Russia comes close to Berdyev in that respect.
That is why top clubs were constantly linked to him. Zenit, Spartak Moscow and Lokomotiv Moscow tried to sign Berdyev on numerous occasions, and it came as a huge surprise when he chose to join Rostov a year after leaving Rubin because of the political squabbles inside the club. It is in the modest surroundings, however, that he has cemented his reputation as a true miracle worker. The incredible turnaround will go down in history as one of the most amazing fairytales in Russian football.
When Berdyev signed at Rostov in December 2014, the club were rock bottom of the table, with a porous defensive record and slim chances of survival. However, they avoided the drop by the skin of their teeth, and then went on a run that almost saw them crowned as champions in the 2015-16 season. Berdyev turned the worst defence in Russia into one of the best rearguards in Europe that conceded just 20 goals last term. Rostov were the Russian Leicester, in spite of disastrous internal problems -- the players were not paid for long months, and Berdyev even had to pay for medications from his own pocket.
Those difficulties forced him to resign in the summer, but he continued to work with the team and eventually remained at the club in a position of vice president and coach. It is important to explain the situation, because it is very unusual and appears unclear to an onlooker.
Berdyev is the real head coach at Rostov, even though he doesn't want the title and doesn't sit on the bench anymore. His assistant, Dmitry Kirichenko, acts as a coach during matches, but he doesn't have a license and can't be promoted. Thus another assistant, Ivan Danilyants, was officially named as the coach -- and yet his real job is very limited. Those are bizarre circumstances, but they seem to work for Rostov.
Rich Russian clubs tend to underperform in Europe, but the tiny southerners are a different story, and their fans are thrilled to have their first ever international adventure. Rostov outplayed Anderlecht and Ajax in the Champions League qualifiers while Berdyev's time at the club seemed to be over. The great man stayed, and masterminded the historic 3-2 win over Carlo Ancelotti's Bayern Munich and the two draws against PSV Eindhoven that enabled Rostov to finish third and qualify for Europa League.
Their two defeats against Atletico Madrid were narrow, and the young Iranian striker Sardar Azmoun even managed to score at Vicente Calderon after los Colchoneros kept a clean sheet at home in Europe for 639 minutes. Azmoun, signed by Berdyev at Rubin and brought by him to Rostov, is the best example of a player who flourishes under his guidance, but there are many others.
Dmitry Poloz was discarded as a below average player before meeting Berdyev and getting a call up for the national team. Veteran midfielders Timofey Kalachov and Alexandru Gatcan are playing the best football of their careers. The Ecuadorian star Christian Noboa was reborn after reuniting with Berdyev, whom he adored at Rubin. Aleksandr Erokhin is developing into a marvellous attacking midfielder, and the defence is still brilliant despite losing key players in the summer. The likes of Slovenian centre-back Miha Mevlja just adapted seamlessly and know exactly what is expected of them.
Berdyev's Rostov are fearless, ambitious, and supremely organised. That is why they pose a significant threat to Manchester United. In fact, they might be the highest hurdle for Mourinho as he aspires to win a European trophy for the first time in seven years.
Michael Yokhin is ESPN FC's European football writer. Follow him on Twitter: @Yokhin