Andrew Flint –
The Russian Premier Liga 2019/20 season has already seen some exciting matchups. On the weekend the big focus will be on Spartak Moscow hosting Ural.
Orenburg (15) vs (9) Rubin Kazan
Last week: Ufa 1-2 Orenburg; Rubin Kazan 0-3 Sochi
Orenburg were widely tipped to plunge deep into a disastrous spiral at the start of the season; ten senior players left, none joined for the first three gameweeks leaving just 17 senior players to choose from, plans to build a new stadium to replace the ramshackle 5,000-capacity Trud Stadium have been put on hold and even manager Vladimir Fedotov claimed to be in the dark over the whole Aleksandr Sutormin saga. Gazprom’s pipelines of support appeared to have switched direction to the Black Sea resort of Sochi, with poor Orenburg left to fend for themselves.
That would be one perspective. A hungry – if threadbare – squad has fought in all matches despite falling short in some, with Djordje Despotovic still one of the most sought-after strikers outside the top flight. His spectacular overhead kick against Akhmat Grozny would have been broadcast on every platform imaginable if his name had been Cristiano Ronaldo. While nine goals scored doesn’t sound that impressive, it is only one fewer than Zenit St. Petersburg. Some sensible recruits have joined to slowly but surely pad out the playing options. All of sudden, on the back of their first win of the season, the pressure is on others right above them rather than on their own survival.
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Rubin Kazan remain one of the more intriguing stories of the season. Still suffering the overhang of FFP restrictions, they have invested in youth and the immensely popular Roman Sharonov to encouraging effect. In fact, in the last 10 years of Premier League football, only Zenit have raked in more income from transfer fees alone. Egor Sorokin has been in sterling form for months and was the latest star to be snapped up, although Krasnodar have loaned him straight back for the remainder of the season. Results have been poor though, however tangible the powerful motivation of Sharonov’s persona may be. Losing 3-0 at home to a Sochi side that had managed three goals in the entire seven other games before is a catastrophic result by anyone’s standards.
The question is how they will recover. The lower reaches of this years Premier League table are much closer to the midtable band of clubs than has been the case in previous years so there is little room for error. If last match was an aberration for the usually solid defence, there remains the issue of the league’s joint-lowest goals tally. Orenburg have let in more goals than anyone except Ural Ekaterinburg so far this season so there is perhaps a slither of hope that they will finally break out.
Klimovich – Malykh, Kozlov, Sivakov, Terekhov – Afonin, Miskic – Cernych, Alves, Skoflek – Despotovic
Dyupin – Danchenko, Uremovic, Sorokin, Stepanov – Konovalov, Bashkirov – Kvaratskhelia, Davitashvili, Mikeltadze – Markov
Score prediction: Orenburg 1-0 Rubin Kazan
Zenit St. Petersburg vs Arsenal Tula
Last week: Spartak Moscow 0-1 Zenit St. Petersburg; Arsenal Tula 1-2 CSKA Moscow
In the already chaotic bottleneck race for the top Zenit had to show really quality and character to emerge from the Otkritie Arena’s flare smoke and piercing volume with all three points last time out. The slightest of cracks had been starting to slip through; the lack of creative midfielder has been apparent for a while, and the reliance on two over-30s fullbacks was starting to be cause for concern. In almost nonchalant fashion, however, Yuriy Zhirkov scored a cracker for his club before proving instrumental for Russia in two Euro 2020 qualifiers. It seems almost unfair that they have simply gone out and reinforced again – bringing in Vyacheslav Karavaev from Vitesse Arnhem and Yordan Osorio on loan from Porto – but that is the luxury of being the wealthiest club in the country.
Arsenal Tula are struggling to live up to last season’s vintage of thrilling devil-may-care attacking football if truth be told. Promising as Danil Lesovoy undoubtedly is, Aleksandr Lomovitskiy is by definition a downgrade from the stunning form that Zelimkhan Bakaev has shown since the start of last season. Only three teams outside the relegation zone have conceded more goals than they have so far. At first glance two wins from three away games is a reasonable start too. Consider their trajectory though: from conceding two goals against a side that has averaged only one goal in their other home games, to only just edging past then-winless Tambov by a single goal, to losing against Rubin Kazan – St. Petersburg is the last place they will want to go to reverse the trend.
Score prediction: Zenit St. Petersburg 3-0 Arsenal Tula
Spartak Moscow (6) vs (8) Ural Ekaterinburg
Last week: Spartak Moscow 0-1 Zenit St. Petersburg; Ural Ekaterinburg 2-4 Krasnodar
It was only going to be a matter of time before VAR left a lasting impression on a major game in Russian football. El Classikov was already an intense affair with the Otkritie bursting at the seams, so when Zelimkhan Bakaev wove his way into the box to break the deadlock only to be pulled back by the correct decision to penalise his handball, the air turned sour. Yuriy Zhirkov’s stunning drive moments later didn’t help matters. With his enigmatic and supremely popular predecessor Massimo Carrera currently back in Moscow, Oleg Kononov is once again under intense scrutiny.
Thankfully for him, he has the leakiest defence in the league to breach. With Alex Kral itching for a debut – especially while Ayaz Guliev is suspended – and Andre Schürrle topping the league for shots on goal, Ural are staring into the abyss when it comes to their defence. Stefan Strandberg returned to the city with his agent to discuss a possible move back to Ekaterinburg during the international break, and although no deal has been signed his presence has been sorely missed. Othman El Kabir’s goalscoring return from injury last time out is a boost. They will need more than positivity alone to alleviate the calls for Dmitri Parfenov to be replaced.
Predicted scoreline: Spartak Moscow 2-0 Ural Ekaterinburg
Sochi (14) vs (5) Lokomotiv Moscow
Last week: Rubin Kazan 0-3 Sochi; Lokomotiv Moscow 1-2 Rostov
Just like that, Sochi have switched from hopeless relegation fodder to dangerous counter-attacking threats. There should be no underestimating their achievement in plundering three goals away to a stubborn defence that had only conceded more than one goal in a home league game once in nearly 18 months, especially as in doing so they doubled their own season’s tally in the previous seven matches. It should also be remembered that they have played six of their eight games away from home up until now, and with yet another Zenit St. Petersburg recruit in Miha Mevlja their numbers are growing.
The atmosphere between the fans and the team in the cavernous Fisht Olympic stadium in Adler, 50km outside Sochi itself in the glorious Olympic park, is yet to catch on though, even though it has only been two games in the top flight. Lokomotiv are the masters at patiently grinding out results though; they have the best record of any side in their last 10 Premier League away games with six wins and two draws. Joao Mario’s arrival adds another touch of class to their attacking options that will be hard to blunt for Sochi.
Score prediction: Sochi 0-1 Lokomotiv Moscow
Tambov (16) vs (4) CSKA Moscow
Last week: Akhmat Grozny 1-1 Tambov; Arsenal Tula 1-2 CSKA Moscow
The loss of Cedric Gogoua has already hurt Tambov as the Ivorian poached a close-range header on his debut for CSKA Moscow, and now he returns to remind his former club of what they no longer have. Georgi Melkadze has arrived from Spartak Moscow in a move that makes a certain amount of sense, given his limited opportunities in the capital and Tambov’s need for attacking options. For an attacking player, however, his record is pitiful; he hasn’t scored in his last 29 professional matches. When no current player has scored more than one goal so far – only Sochi also ‘boast’ a top goalscorer on one – it is a major worry.
CSKA Moscow have been quite public recently in their intentions to sign a senior striker to add to their squad, with recent national team call-up Nikolay Komlichenko said to be on their radar. Fedor Chalov is gradually hitting his stride with three goals, but has had to battle with the frustration of not being named in Russia’s senior squad while Czech Republic-based Komlichenko has, despite the apparent interest in his services from England. Lucas Santos has arrived from Palmeiras and has already scored for the reserves in a friendly; his creativity could be a small spark that unlocks CSKA’s full potential.
Score prediction: Tambov 0-1 CSKA Moscow
Krasnodar (1) vs (13) Krylya Sovetov Samara
Last week: Ural Ekaterinburg 2-4 Krasnodar; Krylya Sovetov Samara 0-0 Dinamo Moscow
To witness Krasnodar in full flight is quite a spectacle. Only five teams have managed to score as many goals in total as Krasnodar have away from home, thanks partly to their devastating display in Ekaterinburg a fortnight ago. Add Manuel Fernandes to the mix, and their lead at the top of the table will almost certainly be stronger. The only side to beat them at home in almost a year was Zenit St. Petersburg in the blistering five-goal thriller in April. Three away matches in three different competitions follow this fixture so some rotation will be expected, not that it will inspire a whole lot of confidence in their visitors given their strength in depth.
The dependency on Aleksandr Sobolev is becoming more and more stark by the week. Of the team’s 10 league goals, the 22-year-old has scored six himself and set up two more. This is the kind of form that has lead to CSKA keeping close tabs on him, and leading him to consider a move to England were an offer to come. What is more worrying is that although Sobolev’s form is continuing, the team’s is not. Only the league’s bottom side, Tambov, have collected fewer points in the last five games, and they are now just two points of the bottom.
Score prediction: Krasnodar 2-0 Krylya Sovetov Samara
Dinamo Moscow (11) vs (10) Ufa
Last week: Krylya Sovetov Samara 0-0 Dinamo Moscow; Ufa 1-2 Orenburg
The mammoth summer transfer carousel continues for Dinamo Moscow as snapped up Sylvester Igboun from Ufa. How they can continue to juggle their ever-burgeoning array of forwards remains to be seen, especially with the Nigerian winger now on board. Despite the array of options available to increasingly under-fire manager Dmitri Khokhlov they have only scored six goals all season – one more than the lowest scorers Akhmat Grozny and Sochi – and have lost three of their four home games already. Alarm bells won’t be ringing just yet given their quality, but there is only so long before they will.
Ufa’s place in the world has been thrown into sharp relief recently. Former star Oleksandr Zinchenko has been scoring for his country and carving out a regular spot in arguably the world’s wealthiest club, Manchester City, while their current squad is reliant on loans from Zenit and Krasnodar. Danil Krugovoy is just the latest young talent that has been poached from them, even if he has admittedly been loaned back for this season. It is hard to see them emerge from the cycle of producing, scouting and selling talent. For now, they must merely survive.
Score prediction: Dinamo 1-0 Ufa
Rostov (3) vs (12) Akhmat Grozny
Last week: Lokomotiv Moscow 1-2 Rostov; Akhmat Grozny 1-1 Tambov
Nobody expected Rostov to be challenging so high up the table at the start of the season, yet alone over a quarter the way into the campaign. Eldor Shomurodov had only scored five goals in 44 league appearances before this summer, with his most memorable moment probably being forced to wear a swimming cap after a head collision last season. This campaign he has finally broken through with seven goals in eight games already. Valery Karpin’s laid-back demeanour on the touchline has become a symbol of the quietly impressive form his side have displayed.
In stark contrast, Akhmat Grozny are starting to look like they might be in trouble. For a long time Rashid Rakhimov has styled a gritty side that has held one of the league’s most dreaded visits, but now even a weakened Tambov had little trouble holding them off. The chronic struggle for goals is a major problem; overall they have managed just five, the lowest in the league, while they are the only side to not score any having played at least three away games. The last time they scored on the road was five months back, and that run doesn’t look like ending.
Score prediction: Rostov 1-0 Akhmat Grozny
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.