Does Russian Football Make Average Foreigners Look Good?

When Zenit St. Petersburg signed Yoann Mollo from Krylia Sovetov earlier this year, both Zenit fans and observers from Mollo’s home nation France raised their eyebrows. The fans of Zenit thought that Mollo was not at the level of their club, only shining at Krylia as he was the focal point in their counter attacking style of play, and therefore took the lead in most of their attacking play. French observers, fans of his former club Saint Etienne, for example, struggled to believe that a player such as Mollo, who underperformed for the midtable Ligue 1 side, was able to make the move to one of Russia’s biggest clubs.

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Yoann Mollo hold aloft his Krylia Sovetov shirt shortly after signing for the club.

Maybe they are justified in their shock? Mollo has yet to make a real impact at Zenit, not starting a single game, and scoring once in a game that was already more than dead.

Looking away from Mollo, there is another player at Krylia who is catching the eye – Cristian Pasquato. The 27-year-old Italian is currently on his 11th loan spell away from parent club Juventus, and considering the lack of games in Russia compared to in Italy, where he has been for his entire career, this is the most productive season he has ever had. Since Mollo left in January, Pasquato has stepped up and showed moments of class to win games and keep Krylia’s hopes of avoiding relegation alive. His exciting form has seen him linked to Spartak Moscow, where he could team up with former Juventus coach Massimo Carrera. But up until his move to Russia, he has never set anywhere alight, never enough to impress another side into signing Pasquato on a permanent move.

Mollo and Pasquato are far from the only foreign players who have impressed widely in Russia despite boasting only modest CVs before making the move East.

Further examples include:

  • Baye Oumar Niasse, the €16 million man who Everton fans now regard as an idol due the huge underperformances they got from him after he signed. He only managed a handful of minutes in the English Premier League before being cast out into the cold, never to be seen in the league for almost a whole year, when relegation threatened Hull picked him up. Niasse has finally got the minutes he deserved, which he did not get at Everton, but his form has never been as electric as it was in Russia for Lokomotiv Moscow, and the Railroaders will be delighted with the huge fee they got for him.
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Oumar Niasse was a big hit for Lokomotiv, but his time in England has yet to turn any heads.

  • Bekim Balaj, an Albanian striker who has floated around Europe; Croatia, Poland and the Czech Republic without really hitting any real form, but took to the RFPL like a duck to water when he joined Terek Grozny before this season, scoring nine goals in his opening 13 matches inclusing an impressive brace against Zenit.
  • Bastos, the former Rostov centre half who was part of the dominant defence, which nearly won the title in 2015/16. His form attracted the attentions of many foreign clubs, and he moved to Lazio, where after struggling with injury, he has struggled to find gametime, appearing just nine times in the league.
  • Lorenzo Melgarejo, now of Spartak Moscow, but formerly of Kuban Krasnodar and Benfica. At Benfica, as a left back or left winger, Melgarejo never really took off, and his first season in Russia was not worth noting either, just one goal in fourteen appearances, but the first half of his second season saw him bag eight goals in a struggling Kuban side, enough to attract the attention of Spartak and earn him a €6 million move. However once more, Melgarejo has failed to impress, scoring once this season in twenty appearances as Spartak won the title.
  • Ivan Paurevic, the big Croatian powerhouse midfielder. Paurevic helped Ufa to stave off two consecutive relegations, with big goals at the end of the 2015/16 season against Spartak literally preventing them from going gown. His performances combined with his links from previous clubs saw him get a summer transfer to Huddersfield, where he reunited with former coach David Wagner. One five minute sub appearance in 6 months saw him come straight back to Ufa, where he has again taken up his role as integral part of their midfield.
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Ivan Paurevic played only 5 minutes of league football for Huddersfield before returning to Ufa in January.

These are just examples from the last two seasons, and in almost all of them, it’s a player who is a star in a small club, tending to be a focal point, or at least better than their team-mates. Their adaptation and impressiveness leads other sides take a punt on the player, sometimes from the same division as in the cases of Mollo and Melgarejo.

The players, whether before or after their spell in Russia, have all generally underperformed in Europe, and excelled at their small club in Russia. Perhaps, therefore, it’s a career player many players should consider. If it pays off, and they become the star man at a club like Krylia, Ufa or Kuban, a big club could come calling, and whether or not they succeed there, it’s a big pay check, and a chance to play for a huge club.

It maybe speaks volumes for the level of the RPL, when a player who has never really shown much in the Italian Serie B can be a star player for a RFPL side, and linked to the club who have just won the title. In the cases of Mollo and Melgarejo, it shows the ability gap between the top Russian sides and the small sides. Yes, the matches may be close, with the small clubs defending admirably, but in reality, the overall level means players like these can excel when the small clubs face off against each other, impressing enough to earn a move.

So, does the RFPL make average players look good? Probably. Is that a good thing? Perhaps a question best left for another time.

Author: David Sansun

Arsenal and Rubin Kazan fan. Possibly too optimistic for Russian football which means I’m left disappointed a lot.

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