Rubin's 'dictator' employs power of prayer to threaten Mourinho

The intense Russian coach could send <i>Internazionale</i> crashing out tonight, writes Jonathan Wilson
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The Independent Football

As Jose Mourinho, well-groomed and immaculately dressed, struts around his technical area at San Siro tonight, the manager in the other dugout could hardly present a greater contrast. Kurban Berdyev will sit motionlessly, the hair that remains on his balding head closely cropped, tieless shirt buttoned to the neck, his eyes locked into an intense stare while his fingers fidget with some prayer beads.

If his Rubin Kazan side win, or draw while scoring two or more goals, and Dynamo Kiev do not beat Barcelona at the Nou Camp, they will oust Internazionale and leave another failed Champions League campaign on Mourinho's CV. They will also become the first former Soviet side to reach the knockout stage of the Champions League since Lokomotiv Moscow in 2003. Given Rubin have just sealed a second successive Russian title, have already won in Barcelona this season, and should have beaten Inter in Russia, that is more than an academic possibility, although they will be hurt by the absence of centre-back Roman Sharonov with a knee injury and target man Alexander Bukharov after a wrist operation.

The theory says that eastern European sides struggle at this stage of the Champions League because they are exhausted at the end of a season that begins in March, but Berdyev has repeatedly defied expectation since taking the Rubin job nine years ago.

Kazan, 450 miles east of Moscow, styles itself as the "third capital of Russia" and is noted for its 16th-century kremlin, which is a Unesco world heritage site, but until recently football had been of little concern. Rubin never played in the Soviet Supreme League, and as recently as 1997 they were in the Russian third flight. The local administration, though, invested heavily, encouraged by the central government's policy of reaching out to the regions, particularly those with significant Muslim populations.

Berdyev himself is a devout Muslim, and took a mufti from the Kul-Shrif mosque, the largest in Tatarstan, to the game in Barcelona, while his prayer beads are a constant reminder of his faith. "I just feel that I have to keep them in my hands when I'm watching a game," Berdyev said. "I don't feel well without them. There were a couple of times when I accidentally forgot to take them to matches and I felt uncomfortable, as though I were missing something."

His part in Rubin's rise can hardly be overstated. Even with the backing of the Tatarstan government, Rubin's budget is dwarfed by the likes of Zenit St Petersburg and CSKA Moscow, and Berdyev has proved an astute wheeler-dealer, coaxing a couple of extra seasons from thirtysomethings such as Sergei Semak, as well as bringing through his own young players, such as Bukharov and Alexander Ryazantsev, the midfielder who scored their spectacular opener against Barça in October.

"He's not really a motivator; he's more a dictator," said the South African midfielder MacBeth Sibaya of the coach who bought him from Rosenborg in 2003. "You have to do what he's telling you, or you're sitting on the bench. He's very strict – the players who go out, the players who drink a lot... He monitors everything."

The Argentinian forward Alejandro Dominguez, who by effectively man-marking Yaya Touré interrupted the flow of Barça's midfield, is likely to have a key role again in what is almost certain to be his last game for the club, before his loan from Zenit expires. That hints at Rubin's true financial status, but for now they can dream of glory. Just don't expect Berdyev to celebrate if they achieve it.

Group F

Remaining fixtures: Tonight: Internazionale v Rubin Kazan, Dynamo Kiev v Barcelona.