Russian Football Premier League Roundup – The title race is heating up

Russian Football Premier League Roundup – The title race is heating up

Futbolgrad’s Russian Football Premier League roundup from matchday 16 focuses on the race at the top of the table.

Since Leonid Fedun took over the club, Spartak Moscow have, in many ways, been a strange beast. The club has invested heavily once again this season and, with Massimo Carrera, they seem to have finally found a coach, who can bring together the squad, and form a serious title challenger.

Indeed, before matchday 16, Spartak were six points clear of second placed Zenit Saint Petersburg, and eleven points clear of title holders CSKA Moscow. With two matches left before the winter break—against Krylia Sovetov Samara and Rubin Kazan—Spartak seemed poised to take a comfortable lead into the three month winter break.

Then, on Tuesday, news broke that CSKA Moscow’s long serving coach Leonid Slutsky would leave the club following CSKA’s last match before the winter break against Tottenham Hotspur. In many ways, the news means that CSKA have given up on the season, and that they want to rebuild the squad for next season.

Zenit, meanwhile, won their match comfortably 2-0 at FC Ufa, but there have been rumours of late that Mircea Lucescu has a difficult relationship with Zenit’s front office, despite the fact that Lucescu has led the club back into the top two of the Russian Football Premier League, and has won five out of five matches in the UEFA Europa League.

Lucescu has constantly complained about the level of refereeing in the RFPL which, in all fairness, seems to be a legitimate criticism, but his constant statements have apparently caused some eye-rolling with Zenit’s management, who seem tired of Lucescu looking for scapegoats to explain bad results.

The Romanian, in particular, complained about the two matches that Zenit lost in the Caucasus, in the Russian Cup against Anzhi Makhachkala and against Terek Grozny on matchday 13 of the RFPL, and the matchday 15 loss against FC Krasnodar. In fairness both matches in the Caucasus indeed included questionable decisions, as they often do in the Caucasus, but Zenit’s board pointed out that Spartak seemed to be able to overcome the odds stacked against them by winning both their away matches in the Caucasus—2-0 against Anzhi, and 0-1 against Grozny.

Russian Football Premier League Roundup Mircea Lucescu

Mircea Lucescu’s us-against-them mentality was already a major factor during his time at Shakhtar Donetsk – Image by Kirill Venediktov CC-BY-SA-3.0

Lucescu, however, responded to this point by stating that the referees selected for those matches were all from Moscow, which suggests a conspiracy that favours Spartak Moscow in the title race. “The three matches that we lost—against Anzhi, Terek, and Krasnodar—were refereed by referees from Moscow. In Grozny we were scored on after a dangerous play against our midfielder Javí Garcia was ignored in midfield. This happens every time. Even though I am used to it I want to point out that it is painful. It was the same thing in Ukraine when I coached Shakhtar Donetsk. I have developed immunity to it.”

Zenit should have been aware of Lucescu’s manner before they signed the Romanian from Shakhtar Donetsk in the summer. In Ukraine, Lucescu, not unlike Manchester United’s José Mourinho, often looked for external enemies in order to develop an us against them mentality in the dressing room. This strategy worked well at Shakhtar Donetsk because, in many ways, Lucescu was given free reign there.

The same mentality, however, has caused some issues in Russia it seems, where one paper even speculated that Leonid Slutsky, either during the winter break or next summer, could replace Lucescu. There is an agreement, however, that Zenit and CSKA do not sign players from one another and, furthermore, Zenit seem to prefer foreign coaches.

The Slutsky to Zenit rumour can, therefore, be easily put to bed as a wild fantasy fabricated by a sport editor with too much time. This is especially true given the fact that Lucescu was given a wide opening in the title race after Spartak Moscow lost 4-0 to Krylia Sovetov Samara on matchday 16.

Leonid Slutsky russian football premier league roundup

The Leonid Slutsky to Zenit has been the weirdest rumour of late – Image by Manuel Veth

The result at the Metallurg Stadium in Samara, which was turned into an icebox with temperatures of -11 degrees centigrade, blows the title race wide open, as Zenit are now just three points behind Spartak. Early on in the game, it was Spartak, who were disadvantaged as Samara was awarded a penalty even though the foul was clearly outside the box.

Spartak, however, appeared sluggish throughout the entire match, evoking the ghosts of the old Spartak, who seemed to slip whenever they were about to make a major step towards winning a title in Russia. Uplifting the squad after such a poor performance will be Massimo Carrera’s first major challenge since taking over as the head coach, and it will be fascinating to watch whether this result was just an accident or the beginning of Spartak losing their grip on the title race.

Matchday 17, which will be the last matchday before the three month long winter break, promises some interesting games with Zenit travelling to FC Rostov, and Spartak hosting Rubin Kazan, as both clubs will be looking to gain a major advantage before the second half of the season kicks off in March.

Russian Football Premier League – Talking Points

  • Once again there has been talk about match fixing in the Russian Football Premier League, as there were suspicions over FC Ural’s 1-0 victory over FC Rostov. The betting radar system has indeed found some weird anomalies during the match but, on the other hand, anyone who watched Chisamba Lungu’s wonder goal would agree that there was very little scripted about the result.
  • After defeating Zenit last weekend, Krasnodar seemed to be back on track for challenging a top spot, but then fell 2-1 to this season’s surprise package Terek Grozny at the Ahmad Arena in Grozny.
  • Weather has been once again a major issue, and several coaches continue to question the schedule of the Russian Football Premier League. There have also now been calls to postpone some games to the spring, in particular Rostov’s match against Zenit in order to give Rostov a better chance to prepare for matchday 6 of the Champions League.

Russian Football Premier League Roundup – Standings

 Russian Football Premier League Roundup standings

Russian Football Premier League Roundup – Highlights

Still to come…

Manuel Veth is a freelance journalist and a writer for He is also a holder of a Doctorate of Philosophy in History from King’s College London, and his thesis is titled: “Selling the People’s Game: Football’s transition from Communism to Capitalism in the Soviet Union and its Successor States”, which will be available in print soon. Originally from Munich, Manuel has lived in Amsterdam, Kyiv, Moscow, Tbilisi, London, and currently is located in Victoria BC, Canada.  Follow Manuel on Twitter @homosovieticus.