Andrew Flint –
After just two and a half short weeks, the Russian Premier Liga is back already for a new season. Only two sides have been promoted from the FNL after promotion/relegation playoffs were cancelled amidst the coronavirus pandemic – FC Khimki and Rotor Volgograd – and both have previous experience in the top flight. The Russian transfer window will remain open until mid-October, so expect plenty more movement between clubs.
Plenty has changed for the new season. After the farce surrounding FC Sochi hammering FC Rostov’s under-18s 10-1 season following the latter club’s reporting multiple positive Covid-19 tests, RPL clubs are reportedly considering a vote to limit the number of under-18 players allowed on the pitch at one time to two. There will also now be a maximum of two loans from one club to another per season.
After the new three-year cycle of UEFA club coefficient rankings kicks in this season, Russia have dropped to seventh, and as a result have lost one European place for next season. “Honestly, losing the Champions League spot is massive,” said Futbolgrad Editor in Chief Manuel Veth. “Clubs struggling to get past the group stage or being eliminated in the first round of the knockout stage is finally catching up with the league.”
The introduction of the UEFA Conference League from 2021/22 means only the top two RPL sides will qualify for the Champions League, third and fourth place will enter the qualifying rounds for UEFA’s new third-tier competition, while only the Russian Cup winners will head to the slimmed-down Europa League group stages.
“Around 15 or so years ago a lot was made of Arsène Wenger saying that a Russian side would win the Champions League within a decade,” recalled Futbolgrad and When Saturday Comes Russian expert Saul Pope. “He has been right about a lot, but not that. Russian sides have not got close, and it would be hard to imagine a Russian side getting to the top table.
“Fans often talk about the money lost by their teams not being in the Champions League as if this will be a personal financial loss to them: actually, Russian sides are better off in the Europa League where they have a chance of making the semis/finals.”
New foreigner limitations have come into force too. Last season the restrictions meant there had to be at least five players who qualified to represent Russia, Ukraine or Belarus on the pitch at all times, whereas now clubs are limited to eight foreigners in their squads, although there is no limit on how many can be on the pitch. However, the classification of ‘foreign’ players has been relaxed, as now Eurasian Economic Union nationals (Armenia, Belarus, Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan) won’t count against the limits either.
The question is, can anyone topple the Zenit St. Petersburg behemoth? “Probably not, unfortunately” replied Pope. “Zenit are a well-oiled machine, cool and composed and in control. It would be nice if things were a little more even and there were several challengers, as there were when the ‘new’ Zenit broke through just over a decade ago. Stronger domestic competition would probably help them have a decent European run.”
Although the destiny of the Premier Liga title seems simple to predict, there are still plenty of moving parts in this upcoming campaign to keep an eye on. CSKA Moscow, for example, have made a significant driv to attract new sponsors, and now have six different shirt sponsors alone. This has allowed them to be linked with some seriously coveted young talent, while they have already secured the signature of Adolfo Gaich.
The transfer window is open in Russia until October, but already there have been a number of intriguing moves. “Kokorin to Spartak is the most surprising, but I am most impressed by CSKA signing Gaich,” said Veth. “That is a significant deal and could finally fix their attacking problems.”
“Kokorin to Spartak is the most intriguing,” Pope continued. “Arguably the most naturally talented Russian player of his generation, but has only ever shown what he can do in fits and starts. He could be what gives Spartak that edge they have been lacking. Kokorin isn’t the first colourful character to make this switch either (Shirokov, Dzyuba…and Panov as a fan!).”
We have cast our eyes over the 16 RPL clubs to assess their prospects for the new season.
Zenit St. Petersburg
IN – Dejan Lovren (Liverpool, ₤10.8m)
OUT – Igor Smolnikov (Krasnodar, free), Oleg Shatov (Rubin, free), Aleksandr Kokorin (Spartak, free), Branislav Ivanovic (released)
Zenit broke a number of records last season as they wrapped up the title in record time, and start the season as clear favourites. They have brought in English, European and World club champion Dejan Lovren to replace the outgoing Branislav Ivanovic, while a sizeable portion of the wage bill has been slashed with Igor Smolnikov, Oleg Shatov and Aleksandr Kokorin’s departures.
Joint top goalscorer Artem Dzyuba – who equalled his best-ever goals return in a season with 17 – has signed a two-year contract extension, while he is rejoined by returning loanness Andrey Mostovoy, Denis Terentyev and Daniil Krugovoy. On Friday they lifted the Super Cup after beating last season’s nearest challenger Lokomotiv. In short, the best team in the country are leaner, younger, and better prepared than ever. The title is theirs to lose.
Futbolgrad prediction: 1st
IN – Vitaly Lystsov (Krylia Sovetov, ₤720k), Jasurbek Jaloliddinov (Bunyodkor, ₤810k)
OUT – Benedikt Howedes, Aleksandr Kolomeytsev (both retired), Jefferson Farfan (released), Joao Mario (loan ended), Brian Idowu (Khimki, loan)
Lokomotiv ended last season as runners up almost by default, as the RPL saw one of the worst collective title challenges in years. Almost all Zenit’s rivals dropped points for extended periods, and although Marko Nikolic remained unbeaten in his eight matches since taking over from Yuri Semin, half of those were drawn amidst unconvincing displays that relied heavily on Aleksey Miranchuk’s inspiration.
Jaloliddinov is a hugely exciting prospect at just 18 but will most likely play understudy to the Miranchuk twins and Rifat Zhemaletdinov. Fedor Smolov returning from his loan at Celta Vigo – where he scored against Barcelona and Real Madrid – will boost forward options at least, even if the loss of Farfan, Joao Mario and Howedes severely impacts on their experience.
Futbolgrad prediction: 4th
IN – Igor Smolnikov (Zenit, free), Evgeny Gorodov (Akhmat, free)
OUT – Manuel Fernandes, Jon Gudni Fjolusson, Stanislav Kritsyuk (all released), Artem Golubev (Ufa, ₤630k)
Despite a raft of major injuries last season that robbed them of the services of Viktor Claesson, Remy Cabella, Uros Spajic, Yury Gazinskiy and Ruslan Kambolov, among others, Krasnodar still managed to qualify for the Champions League. Although they’ve made little move of note in the transfer market, they have reinforced sensibly at full-back with Smolnikov’s signing.
Claesson is due to return in the next few weeks, while Cabella had already returned to action at the back end of last season, so Murad Musaev effectively has two top attacking additions to choose from. They will need them as far too many points were dropped last season, and with only two seats at UEFA’s top table the chasing pack will only be more fiercely fought.
Futbolgrad prediction: 2nd
IN – Adolfo Gaich (San Lorenzo, ₤7.65m)
OUT – Cedric Gogoua (Rotor Volgograd, loan), Ilya Pomazun (Ural Ekaterinburg, loan)
CSKA pulled off arguably the biggest transfer of the window so far by snapping up Argentine striker Adolfo Gaich from under the noses of half of Europe. The 21-year-old 1.90m forward, nicknamed El Tanque in his homeland, is a real coup for Roman Babaev and his recruitment team. With a new main sponsor bringing in extra funds, there has been talk of them raining the Argentine market again with Fausto Vera of Argentinos Juniors reportedly also in their sights.
The truth is though that Gaich’s signing was desperately needed. CSKA have relied entirely on Fedor Chalov up front for the last two years, and although he top scored in the RPL two seasons ago, he struggled badly before a late spurt of three goals in the last five games. Before that, he had scored once in 15 league games; it was hardly surprising that it coincided with CSKA’s disastrous dip in form that threatened Viktor Goncharenko’s reign. He looks back to his sharp best though, and with someone to help shoulder the burden he might recover his sparkling form.
Futbolgrad prediction: 3rd
IN – David Tosevski (Rabotnicki, ₤900k), Kento Nashimoto (FC Tokyo, ₤720k)
OUT – None
Last season was one of frustration and uncertainty for Valery Karpin’s side, as they were the first club to be struck with multiple positive tests for coronavirus. The farcical scenes that unfolded at the Fisht Olympic Stadium – where Rostov were forced to field their under-18 side after Sochi refused to postpone the fixture following numerous senior players being quarantined – resulted in a record-breaking 10-1 defeat. They never really recovered their form, and looked relatively toothless without the goals of Eldor Shomurodov.
Their dependency on the Uzbek international striker is a concern, even if highly promising Macedonian striker David Trosevski has been brought in. After racing to the top of the RPL goalscoring charts early on, he scored just once in the last 16 games. With fewer European places available for next season, it seems unlikely they will be challenging at the business end of the season.
Futbolgrad prediction: 8th
IN – Daniil Fomin (Ufa, ₤3.15m), Sylvester Igboun (Ufa, ₤1.8m)
OUT – Joaozinho, Artur Yusupov, Vladimir Rykov, Roman Neustadter, Anton Sosnin (all released), Kirill Panchenko (Tambov, free)
After Zenit’s Cup win left the final Europa League place to the next highest league finishers not already qualified, Dynamo snuck back into European football for the first time since their Jorge Mendes-fuelled FFP-breaching period a few years ago. Kirill Novikov remains in charge with his reputation further enhanced by this latest string to his bow, although he will head into next season with a much slimmer squad.
Daniil Fomin is a smart signing in midfield, especially given the departure of Roman Neustadter and Artur Yusupov, and the release of Joaozinho is at least partly offset by the return of Fedor Cernych, Daniil Lipovoy and Miguel Cardoso from loan spells. They do have a raft of changes to contend with though, and are placing more emphasis on Nikolay Komlichenko to replicate his explosive goalscoring form from his time in the Czech Republic.
Futbolgrad prediction: 7th
IN – Aleksandr Kokorin (Zenit, free), Oston Urunov (₤1.35m), Aleksandr Sobolev (Krylia Sovetov, ₤4m)
OUT – Lorenzo Melgarejo (released), Artem Timofeev (Akhmat, loan)
Last season was the first in over 80 years that Spartak Moscow managed to lose more home games than they won, so it can’t be considered a success by any stretch of the imagination. Admittedly the first part was overseen by the morose Oleg Kononov, leaving Domenico Tedesco to pick up the pieces and attempt to impose his brand of professionalism into the squad. His fiery character is certainly large enough for the club,although at times there has been a palpable sense of frustration on the touchline, hardly assuaged by the surprisingly short length of his contract.
Then again, this is a supremely gifted squad that is capable of spectacular performances, none more so than the ruthless derby win over Dynamo Moscow back in March. Shamil Gazizov replaced Thomas Zorn as sporting director towards the end of last season, and promptly brought Uzbek midfielder Oston Urunov with him, and although Aleksandr Kokorin’s addition is curious at best, given the presence of Ezequiel Ponce, Jordan Larsson and Aleksandr Sobolev already, his extra experience and quality will offer yet more options.
Futbolgrad prediction: 5th
IN – Daniil Lesovoy (Zenit, ₤540k)
OUT – Kantemir Berkhamov, Victor Alvarez, Bakary Kone, Maksim Volodko, Yuri Lodygin (all released)
It was perhaps inevitable that Igor Cherevchenko would leave his post as Arsenal Tula manager after losing five straight RPL matches a few weeks ago. Last summer’s Europa League adventure ended before it had really begun with a humiliating thrashing at the hands of Neftci Baku, and those continental dreams seem a lifetime ago.
The only confirmed incoming transfer is converting the loan spell of Daniil Lesovoy into a permanent transfer from Zenit, while they have lost five experienced players. The reliance on Evgeny Lutsenko’s goals last season are another major concern. The veteran striker finished as the RPL’s third-highest scorer with 15 goals – easily his best return in a league campaign – but the next highest scorer for Arsenal managed just three. How long Lutsenko’s midas touch continues remains to be seen.
Futbolgrad prediction: 10th
IN – Artem Golubev (Krasnodar, ₤630k)
OUT – Daniil Fomin (Dynamo Moscow, ₤3.15m), Sylvester Igboun (Dynamo Moscow, ₤1.8m), Oston Urunov (Spartak Moscow, ₤1.35m), Aleksey Putsko (Akhmat Grozny, free), Andrey Kozlov (released)
On the surface, Ufa are in deep trouble. They lost Shamil Gazizov, their hugely successful sporting director who has unearthed numerous previously unknown talents for peanuts, to Spartak Moscow. He took their explosive 19-year-old Uzbekistan international midfielder Oston Urunov with him, while top goalscorer Daniil Fomin has joined Dynamo Moscow. This was a squad that struggled with a number of positive and inconclusive coronavirus test results last season as well.
On the other hand, this is how Ufa have always operated when it comes to high player turnover. While the picture looks bleak without a goalscorer up front and no obvious replacements for their two best midfielders, don’t bet against them unveiling yet another young talent that will go on to bigger and better things while also filling the coffers in Bashkortostan. The problem is that the fixtures continue thick and fast, so there is little time to adapt once again.
Futbolgrad prediction: 12th
IN – Djordje Despotovic (Orenburg, free), Oleg Shatov (Zenit, free), Mikhail Merkulov (Ural Ekaterinburg, free), Oliver Abildgaard (Aalborg, ₤900k)
OUT – Vladimir Granat (released), Evgeny Markov, Aleksandr Tashaev, Aleksandr Zuev (all loans ended)
Rubin Kazan once again struggled to score last season as they trundled along to a 10th-placed finish, managing a paltry 18 goals in 30 games. This was despite the signing of Ivan Ignatyev, who failed to score in his first 10 games for his new club. Even when he broke his Rubin duck, it was in a defeat in the dead rubber against Spartak on the last day of the season.
On the other hand, they have now addressed the lack of aggressive cutting edge up front with the signing of Despotovic, who plundered eight goals for bottom-of-the-table Orenburg before his switch last month. Another plus point was the sparkling form of Khvicha Kvaratskhelia, who was named RPL Young Player of the Season. Without laying out a ruble on the experience of Oleg Shatov and the pace of Mikhail Merkulov, they look a far more dangerous prospect.
Futbolgrad prediction: 6th
IN – David Karaev (KamAZ, ₤234k), Ilya Pomazun (CSKA, loan)
OUT – Mikhail Merkulov (Rubin Kazan, free), Maciej Wilusz (Rakow, free), Artem Fidler, Nikolay Dimitrov (both retired), Pavel Pogrebnyak, Petrus Boumal (both released)
Everything was aligned for Ural Ekaterinburg to finally realise their dream of qualifying for Europe; their home stadium, the Centralniy, was chosen to host the final of the Russian Cup, while their half of the draw was considerably weaker. Somehow they contrived to waste a golden opportunity by failing to beat a lower-league side who hadn’t played a competitive match for over three months in the semi-final.
A defence that conceded more than any other side (53 in 30 games) has lost Maciej Wilusz and Mikhail Merkulov, and the key figure protecting it, Petrus Boumal has gone. Nikolay Dimitrov’s shock retirement has robbed them of their most potent support for talisman Erik Bicfalvi. One plus is that the massively underperforming manager Dmitry Parfenov has finally gone, and has been replaced by Sergey Matveev. The new man in the hot seat has one simple task – avoid relegation. Anything more will be considered a major achievement.
Futbolgrad prediction: 13th
IN – Emmanuel Mamana (Zenit, loan), Sergey Terekhov (Orenburg, loan), Aleksandr Rudenko (Spartak, loan), Timofey Margasov (Lokomotiv, free)
OUT – Adil Rami, Gianelli Imbula, Dusan Lagator (all released), Aleksandr Kokorin (loan ended), Aleksandr Karapetyan (Tambov, loan), Andrey Mostovoy (Zenit, loan ended)
Sochi didn’t win many friends during their debut top-flight campaign last season. It began partly with their huge reliance on a friendly relationship with Zenit, that saw nine players who had previously played for the champions feature, and came to a head when they refused to postpone a fixture against Rostov after the latter were forced to place their entire first-team squad into quarantine after a batch of positive coronavirus tests. That decision saw Rostov field a team on under-17s, and subsequently lose by a record 10-1 scoreline.
The irony of their hard-nosed decision was that they had granted Orenburg – then managed by Sochi’s current manager Vladimir Fedotov – a postponement themselves back in December. Before the winter break, they hadn’t won in eight matches, but with the help of Aleksandr Kokorin’s goalscoring form in his first professional matches since being released from prison, Fedotov turned his new employers’ form around to avoid the drop. Without their two most potent attacking threats – Kokorin and Andrey Mostovoy – they might well struggle to make headway again.
Futbolgrad prediction: 11th
IN – Miroslav Bogosavac (Cukaricki, ₤450k), Giorgi Shelia (Tambov, free), Aleksandr Putsko (Ufa, free), Artem Timofeev (Spartak, loan)
OUT – Damian Szymanski (AEK Athens, ₤1.8m), Evgeny Gorodov (Krasnodar, free), Magomed Musalev, Roland Gigolaev, Denis Glushakov (all released)
There is a telling detail about Akhmat Grozny’s team bus livery; plastered across the side is a huge title reading ‘2004 Russian Cup Winners’. Back then, in the midst of the Second Chechen War, Terek Grozny (as Akhmat were then known) were still a second-tier side, and although they were promoted the same season they have done little of note since.
Last season was no different. They again struggled to score, averaging less than a goal per game and only managing to outscore two sides, and in the middle of the league campaign went almost 10 months and 18 matches with only two wins. Even so, there were the perennial flashes of threat that made them inconsistently hard to beat. The 4-2 thrashing of relegation rivals Krylia Sovetov away from home stood out in particular.
Futbolgrad prediction: 9th
IN – Kirill Panchenko (Dynamo Moscow, free), Aleksandr Karapetyan (Sochi, free), Sergey Ryzhikov (Krylia Sovetov, free), Nikita Chicherin (Krylia Sovetov, free)
OUT – Giorgi Shelia (Akhmat Grozny, free), Sulley Muniri (released), Aleksey Gritsaenko, Georgi Melkadze, Miguel Cardoso (all loans ended)
A new club crest will do little to paper over the fragile hopes the RPL’s nomadic strugglers have of surviving relegation again. Last summer a laughable crest showed a low-resolution image of a wolf that turned out to be the first jpeg image that came up on a google search, while the new more modern version bears suspicious resemblance to the Toronto Wolfpack crest. Tambov’s problems, it seems, are working out what their identity actually is.
They remain unable to play in their home city due to ongoing funding issues delaying the redevelopment of their stadium to bring it up to RPL standards – their sporting director has claimed October is the scheduled completion date – and have returned to Saransk after starting last season there. Even their borrowed home is telling; Mordovia Saransk, in the top flight five years ago, have been unable to sustain their professional status, so the 2018 World Cup venue, the Mordovia Arena, is barely managing to justify its surroundings. Kirill Panchenko is a surprisingly impressive pickup, although losing the revitalised form of Georgi Melkadze will be a challenge.
Futbolgrad prediction: 15th
IN – Jano Ananidze (Anorthosis Famagusta, free), Aleksandr Dovbnya (Orenburg, free), Ilya Zhigulev (Krasnodar, loan), Cedric Gogoua (CSKA Moscow, loan)
OUT – Vitaly Denisov (released), Anzor Sanaia (Enisey, free), Aleksandr Dovbnya (Arsenal Tula, loan ended)
Rotor Volgograd have endured quite a traumatic time since their halcyon days of Europa League adventures and twice finishing runners up in the Russian top flight. Since then, they have been relegated to the third tier, liquidated, reformed, given a World Cup stadium as their new home, and finally earned promotion back to the Premier Liga.
The support is there – an average gate of 18,000 in the RPL would be impressive, never mind the second tier – but the question remains whether they can live up to it. Cedric Gogoua and Ilya Zhigulev are smart loan signings with top-flight experience, but pinning the creative hopes for an intense campaign on former Spartak Moscow wonderkid Jano Ananidze – who has spent most of the last few years on the treatment table – is a risky approach.
Futbolgrad prediction: 16th
IN – Brian Idowu (Lokomotiv Moscow, loan)
OUT – Aleksandr Smirnov (Rostov, free)
Returning to the top table should be cause for celebration, especially when it came on the back of a shock Russian Cup Final appearance, but in Khimki’s case, there is an unusual taste to promotion. Sergey Yuran was brought in to replace Andrey Talalaev over the winter break, despite the latter averaging over two points per game and having guided the Moscow region side into the promotion places. Yuran then completed formalities amidst the impacted season calendar, as well as masterminding an emphatic semi-final win over Ural Ekaterinburg, only to be fired a week before the season began.
Legal proceedings have reportedly begun between Yuran and the club, but the man brought in to replace him, Dmitry Gunko, has serious pedigree in youth football as director of Spartak Moscow’s academy system. How he will set the team up compared to the extremely well-drilled unit Yuran crafted, remains to be seen. There were enough signs there that this group of players are more than capable of competing in the RPL.
Futbolgrad prediction: 14th
Andrew Flint is an English freelance football writer living in Tyumen, Western Siberia, with his wife and two daughters. He has featured on These Football Times, Russian Football News, Four Four Two and Sovetski Sport, mostly focusing on full-length articles about derbies, youth development and the game in Russia. Due to his love for FC Tyumen, he is particularly interested in lower league Russian football and is looking to establish himself in time for the 2018 World Cup. Follow Andrew on Twitter @AndrewMijFlint.