MOSCOW, May 18 (Reuters) - He has long been nicknamed as the ‘Russian Mourinho’ but until this week CSKA Moscow coach Leonid Slutsky appeared to have very little in common with the outspoken Portuguese known the world over as the ‘Special One’.
Yet on Saturday, the usually shy Slutsky was being hailed as CSKA’s own ‘Special One’ after he finally shed his loser’s tag to lead the army club to their first league title since 2006.
Slutsky, who has been compared with the hugely successful Jose Mourinho for his analytical mind, tactical preparation and attention to detail, said he was flattered with the comparison.
“He’s a truly great coach,” Slutsky said of the manager who has won league, Cup and Champions League trophies with multiple teams. “He has won many big titles. Almost anywhere he went he achieved success. As for myself, I could only dream of having even half of what he’s got.”
Whether his dream comes true or not, Slutsky, who turned 42 this month, has already made his mark at CSKA by becoming the youngest coach in the club’s history to win the league crown.
Touted by some as future coach for the Russian national team, Slutsky has received a glowing endorsement from current Russia manager Fabio Capello.
“You can surely say that Leonid is one of the best coaches in this country,” the Italian told Russian media this week.
“His age is a big plus for him. He’s young and it gives him a lot of potential for further growth.”
Ironically, Slutsky’s triumph would not be possible if CSKA president Yevgeny Giner had sacked him following the team’s slump at the end of last season.
Slutsky submitted his resignation after CSKA squandered a seven-point lead at the top of the table, losing six of their last 14 matches to finish third behind Zenit St Petersburg and city nemesis Spartak, missing out on a Champions League spot.
However, Giner, considered one of the shrewdest presidents in Russian soccer, gave the young coach a second chance.
Slutsky’s critics have already labelled the Volgograd native a permanent bridesmaid after several near misses.
But after losing the Cup final with FK Moscow in 2007 and finishing second with CSKA in his first full season at the club in 2010, Slutsky finally broke his duck by lifting the Russian Cup two years ago. By his own admission that victory helped Slutsky to shed the ‘loser’ tag.
Slutsky raised eyebrows when he got the nod to lead CSKA, replacing Spaniard Juande Ramos near the end of the 2009 season.
Just a week later, Slutsky got his baptism of fire by facing Alex Ferguson and his Manchester United team at Old Trafford in a Champions League match that ended in a 3-3 draw.
That season CSKA made the last 16 of Europe’s premier club competition for the first time, then beat Sevilla to become only the second Russian side to reach the Champions League quarter-finals.
Slutsky’s coaching path has also resembled Mourinho’s in a sense that both have never played professional soccer.
After a freak accident, when he fell off a tree trying to rescue a neighbour’s cat, ended his goalkeeping career at 19, Slutsky took up coaching a youth team in his native Volgograd, steadily rising through the ranks.
After a brief spell with second division Uralan Elista, he was hired as FK Moscow’s reserve team coach in 2004 and led them to top spot in his first season. The following year he took over the first team.
But despite Moscow finishing fifth in 2005 and sixth the following season and reaching the Russian Cup final for the first time in 2007, Slutsky was sacked at the end of that year.
Soccer experts have taken notice of his achievements, however. While the soft-spoken Slutsky has had good rapport with the media, some of the coaching old guard still looked down on him, mainly because he did not fit the mould.
Some felt he lacked the necessary experience and was not tough enough, others did not like his unorthodox methods.
Slutsky was first in Russian soccer to seek help for his players from a professional psychologist.
“I’ve had a personal profile done on each player. (Striker) Roman Adamov was particularly interesting,” Slutsky recalled.
“I’ve known Roman since a young age. He was very close to me, almost part of my family, but the psychologist said that by spending time with the player I was sapping his mental energy so I stopped any contact with Roman,” the coach said.
”When he’d come to my house I would go to another room so that I didn’t see him. He could still talk to my wife but not to me. The trick worked. That year (2007) he finished as top scorer (in Russia’s top flight) and made the national team.
“A good coach should always keep an open mind and never stop learning. The moment you stop learning, you’re finished. That’s what I try to teach my players,” he added. (Editing by Pritha Sarkar)