Andrew Flint –
The Russian Premier Liga 2019/20 season has already seen some exciting matchups. On the weekend the big focus will be on the clash between Spartak Moscow and Zenit St. Petersburg at the top of the Russian Premier Liga table.
Spartak Moscow (2) vs (5) Zenit St. Petersburg
Last week: Krylya Sovetov Samara 1-2 Spartak Moscow; Ufa 1-0 Zenit St. Petersburg
Perhaps it was always too good to be true. The look of abject emptiness on Oleg Kononov’s face as two Ricardo Horta strikes saw off his tepid Spartak side midweek seemed all too familiar. It is becoming the worst-kept secret in Russian football that the former Arsenal Tula and Krasnodar manager is on borrowed time, even despite the recent upturn in fortunes. With only a slender aggregate disadvantage to overturn at home, Spartak crumbled against Braga to crash out of the Europa League to great mirth on social media and in the ranks of their opponents.
Last week’s impressive resilience to win at the death away to Krylya Sovetov Samara will be required, and then some. Such is the fragility of the Russian Premier League that there is just one point now separating the top seven teams so that any weakness will be ruthlessly exploited. What stands to Spartak’s advantage is that they will welcome back Guus Til and Jordan Larsson after both were forced to sit out European commitments. Til’s absence, in particular, was keenly felt on Thursday night. In the long term, a lack of extra fixtures will allow a theoretical chance to rest.
Zenit are a wounded animal after their chastening slip-up away to Ufa. Although there was always a sense they were yet to really kick on into their unstoppable top gear, there was little to trouble Sergey Semak. Artem Dzyuba has been in fine form in front of goal, injuries haven’t been a major disruption, and they were top of the table. In a flash, they are suddenly fifth in the table after a goalless defeat that exposed the lapses in concentration that can undo even the greatest sides.
Sardar Azmoun has yet to truly light the touch paper to his season, and Brazilian superstar Malcom has had to recover from injury there is still ample firepower as there always is. Sebastian Driussi is itching to get back on the pitch and may feature on Sunday. Once all of them are restored to maximum capacity, there is no doubt that Zenit will power their way back to the summit. To do that though, they must travel to one of their most bitter rivals in a guaranteed sellout Otkritie Arena and hold their nerve better than they did in the comparatively timid Neftyanik Stadium in Ufa.
Maksimenko – Eshchenko, Gigot, Dzhikia, Ayrton – Zobnin, Guliev – Bakaev, Til, Schurrle – Larsson
Zenit St. Petersburg
Lunev – Smolnikov, Ivanovic, Rakitskiy, Douglas Santos – Erokhin, Barrios, Ozdoev, Rigoni – Azmoun, Dzyuba
Score prediction: 2-1
Krylya Sovetov Samara (13) vs (11) Dinamo Moscow
Last week: Krylya Sovetov Samara 1-2 Spartak Moscow; Tambov 0-2 Dinamo Moscow
There seems to be no stopping Aleksandr Sobolev at the moment. Once again, he scored to maintain his place at the head of the goalscoring charts, but unfortunately, once again it wasn’t enough to earn more of the only currency that really matters: points. They’ve already lost three home matches, and have conceded the second-highest tally of goals at home too. Sobolev is outperforming his xG by a considerable margin too, so much as his touch, instinct, and finishing is beyond doubt there is only so long it will be sustained.
Dinamo Moscow broke their three-match winless streak thanks to Maximilian Phillip’s second goal in two games, and the increasingly influential presence of Clinton N’Jie to help share the creative burden for last season’s highest assist maker Joaozinho. Before Phillip’s arrival, Dinamo hadn’t scored in two matches, and now the German forward has had a hand in all three goals in the last two games. Although they have only just emerged from the relegation zone, they have the joint-tightest defensive record away from home with just one such goal conceded.
Score prediction: Krylya Sovetov Samara 1-1 Dinamo Moscow
Ufa (10) vs (16) Orenburg
Last week: Ufa 1-0 Zenit St. Petersburg; Arsenal Tula 2-1 Orenburg
Since conceding six goals in their opening two matches of the league campaign, Ufa have quietly been going about their business in typically understated fashion. Sylvester Igboun finally got off the mark a fortnight ago, and just one goal has been conceded in the last four matches. Last weekend’s stoic result has denied the position of stealth after they blew the title race wide open. Danil Fomin has been a revelation with his bursts forward, which have rewarded him with three goals already this season.
Orenburg, however, remain rooted to the foot of the table, even despite their effort to bulk out their squad with some Dinamo Moscow youth products. Admittedly they have been harshly judged after 90 minutes given the threat they somehow still pose; only two teams in the bottom half have outscored them. There was very little many defences could have done about Evgeniy Lutsenko’s Bergkamp-esque wonder goal last weekend. But that pressure of carrying the rest of the league above them will only get harder, and breaking a winless streak without a solid defence is less than straightforward.
Score prediction: Ufa 1-0 Orenburg
Rubin Kazan (9) vs (15) Sochi
Last week: Rostov 2-1 Rubin Kazan; Ural Ekaterinburg 3-1 Sochi
It is very rare that a side can create such little opportunity in front of goal and still maintain a form of positive momentum. No side has been involved in fewer goals than Rubin with five scored and five conceded in seven matches so far, but this is not dreary backs-against-the-wall drudgery. A huge deflection from Eldor Shomurodov denied them a very impressive point away from home against high-flying Rostov last weekend, and with the least potent attack to repel this weekend, there is the perfect opportunity to keep in touch with the chasing pack.
Sochi have very few positives to take from their season so far. One of only two teams still yet to win, they have the worst scoring record with just two, and no side has conceded more on the road. Last weekend in Ekaterinburg they were disorganised in attack, and picked off ruthlessly by far more expansive style from Ural. Anton Zabaoltniy poached his first goal since arriving and will be expected to spearhead a gradual revival. With his arrival, Sochi have moved to a different setup with two strikers in him and Dmitri Poloz, which poses its own challenge for Rubin.
Score prediction: Rubin Kazan 1-0 Sochi
Lokomotiv Moscow (4) vs (3) Rostov
Last week: Krasnodar 1-1 Lokomotiv Moscow; Rostov 2-1 Rubin Kazan
The latest blockbuster signing to arrive in Russia has really taken everyone by surprise with Joao Mario joining on loan from Inter Milan. His role in the team will necessitate a slight shuffle in personnel which could end up reducing the pace out wide; Rifat Zhemaletdinov is the most likely fall guy with the Miranchuk twins practically irreplaceable. There is certainly merit in their ability to hold Krasnodar to a 1-1 draw, even if their goal came from a complete howler from Matvey Safonov. The pressure is on to keep up with the frontrunners.
Rostov have not been impressive in recent weeks. Of their last four matches, they have dropped points to two bottom-half sides and relied on a goalkeeping error for their latest win. The fact they are level on points with the league leaders is impressive though, and with Eldor Shomurodov – the subject of transfer interest from Europe – second only to Aleksandr Sobolev in the scoring charts there is always an outlet. Lokomotiv are a significant step up in calibre from the last few opponents though.
Score prediction: Lokomotiv Moscow 2-1 Rostov
Akhmat Grozny (12) vs (14) Tambov
Last week: CSKA Moscow 3-0 Akhmat Grozny; Tambov 0-2 Dinamo Moscow
Amidst all the hustle and bustle at the top of the table, Akhmat’s struggles have flown slightly under the radar. For some time, they have built a reputation as an awkward side to beat, at home especially, but they are leaking goals more than usual. An even bigger problem is that they have managed just four goals all season. Andres Ponce hasn’t scored since his summer move from Anzhi, but in his defence, he’s hardly been given a reasonable chance yet with just 42 minutes under his belt. The firepower is there – but Rashid Rakhimov needs to unlock it quickly before it gets messy.
Tambov have lost their talismanic defender Cedric Gogoua to CSKA Moscow in a shock €500k move. With the Ivorian’s departure, the new boys have not only lost their most athletic defender, but also their top goalscorer. Dinamo Moscow had little trouble picking them apart at home – in Saransk – last weekend. Without Gogoua to galvanise the backline, it will be hard for them to resist over the season; even with Akhmat’s goal-shy attack, they will struggle.
Score prediction: Akhmat Grozny 2-1 Tambov
Ural Ekaterinburg (8) vs (1) Krasnodar
Last week: Ural Ekaterinburg 3-1 Sochi; Krasnodar 1-1 Lokomotiv Moscow
Dmitri Parfenov’s side are all or nothing. Both the top goalscorers in the league and also having conceded more than anyone, they simply can’t maintain consistency, but with the arrival of Sochi – who had managed just one goal in six games before last weekend – they burst out of the blocks again. It was the third time this season they have scored three goals in a home game, but it was how the side adapted to having only one actual winger in a 4-2-3-1 that was most impressive. One danger is the defensive lapses though; Anton Zabalotniy was fortunate to receive a deflected cross into his path six yards out, but he should never have been allowed the space in the first place.
Krasnodar were undone by a serious error from Matvey Safonov last weekend, but it didn’t stop them edging to the top of the standings after Zenit St. Petersburg’s slip against Ufa. Dusting themselves off after the crushing Champions League playoff defeat to Olympiacos will not be easy, but they will be heartened by their favourable Europa League group stage draw. Before all that, though they must take the opportunities that will certainly present themselves at the Centralniy.
Score prediction: Ural Ekaterinburg 1-2 Krasnodar
Arsenal Tula (7) vs (6) CSKA Moscow
Last week: Arsenal Tula 2-1 Orenburg; CSKA Moscow 3-0 Akhmat Grozny
Spectacular as Evgeniy Lutsenko’s sensational individual winner was last weekend; it is a mild concern that it was needed in the first place to beat strugglers Orenburg. Last season their expansive home form was too explosive for even the top clubs to handle, but in the absence of the spine that have since returned to their parent clubs after their loans expired there is less threat. Only two sides have conceded more goals at home too.
CSKA Moscow are slowly stepping up their momentum after a slow start to the season. Last weekend’s 3-0 rout of Akhmat was only the second time they’d managed to score at least three goals in a league game since early March, but it has put them within a point of the top of the table. Cedric Gogoua’s arrival bolsters their defence even more along with the recent return to fitness of Kirill Nababkin, although it is unlikely the former Tambov defender will feature straight away. With Fedor Chalov back among the goals too, confidence will be high.
Score prediction: Arsenal Tula 1-2 CSKA Moscow
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.