RFPL Mid-Season Review – Part Four

As we are at the halfway stage of the 2017/18 season, it is now time to look at the season so far and how it has transpired for each RFPL member club. This mid-season review will look at the pre-season expectations for each club based on their squad and summer signings, cross-referencing with last season’s performance and reputation. Then deducing whether or not each club is achieving its pre-season goals so far this season, the comparative high and low points so far for each club, expectations for the rest of the season and finally, placing a grade based on all of the aforementioned factors out of ten.

READ PART THREE HERE

Part Four reviews FC Tosno, FC Ufa, FC Ural and Zenit St. Petersburg.

 

FC Tosno

Last Season: 2nd in FNL (automatically promoted)

Pre-season Expectations: Finish outside of automatic relegation spots & survive (14th or upwards)

Current Position: 13th

With a population of just 39,101 inhabitants, Tosno is likely the smallest ever place to have a team competing in the RFPL, and so far in their first season at this level, Tosno have acquitted themselves well and look a class above other small clubs who have won promotion to this level. Privately-owned by the FortGroup real estate investment company, Tosno play their home matches in Zenit’s old Petrovsky stadium due to Tosno’s own stadium, the Stadion Kirovets, not meeting RFPL requirements – ironically this is actually based in Tikhvin and they played at the Electron Stadium in Veliky Novgorod. Tosno, upon promotion, continued the strategy of mainly buying or loaning in young Russian players such as fullback Evgeni Chernov from Zenit and attacking midfielder Georgi Melkadze from Spartak with a few foreign transfers such as Cape Verdean midfielder Nuno Rocha from Romanian club Universitatea Craiova. Despite being tipped to struggle after three defeats in their opening three games, Tosno currently sits thirteenth and are just one place off avoiding even a promotion/relegation playoff let alone automatic relegation.

At the mid-way point of the season, Tosno were on a four-match unbeaten run and have proven competitive all season, even in defeats, with the largest margin of defeat being just two goals. Also impressive is how they have matched up against the division’s best sides, only losing by a solitary goal against CSKA and Zenit, coming back from two goals down and playing with ten men to draw at home 2-2 against Spartak and their performance of the season, an impressive 2-0 away win against current leaders Lokomotiv. In terms of goals scored (thirteen) and goals conceded (sixteen) in just fifteen games, Tosno match up well against other sides from ninth down. Finally, proof of how much progress has been made is that the aforementioned Chernov and 26-year-old striker Anton Zabalotny have been called up into recent Russian national squads.

Positives: The superb 2-0 victory away to Lokomotiv, good competitiveness in all games, Zabalotny with three goals and Yevgeni Markov with five ensure that Tosno have a pair of strikers who are a reliable source of goals and finally, the club’s 1-0 away victory against relegation rival Dinamo Moscow could prove vital come season’s end.

Negatives: Whilst the 20,000 capacity Petrovsky in St. Petersburg is the nearest place that meets RFPL standards, it is a one hour drive away from Tosno and for many home matches, Petrovsky has been only been at the most quarter full. This creates a problem for Tosno in creating an intimidating atmosphere for their home matches and this has shown with only one of their four wins so far at home as opposed to three away. Finally, the aforementioned 20-year-old Spartak loanee Melkadze tipped pre-season to do well, has underperformed this season and has recently been relegated to the bench.

Grade: 7.5/10 – An impressive debut campaign for Tosno so far, clear of the automatic relegation spots by four points and a chance of a cup final appearance as they have a winnable Quarter Final at home against Luch Vladivostok. I believe they will survive.

 

FC Ufa

Last Season: 7th

Pre-season Expectations: Stable mid-table finish (Between 7th and 11th)

Current Position: 7th

If Tosno is a new small team looking to now stabilise themselves in mid-table over the next three-four seasons after winning promotion to the RFPL, Ufa is the ideal blueprint to follow. As David Sansun wrote recently, the club from Bashkortostan are now in their fourth consecutive season in Russia’s top flight and are going from strength to strength each season.

READ MORE: FC Ufa – How To Run a Small Club in Russia 

Whilst at RFPL rival club Anzhi, you see large player turnover, at Ufa, their transfer window signings policy can be described as sensible (the club only signed four players this summer window). At other small Russian clubs, you often see high levels of managerial turnover due to rushed decisions when it comes to hiring and firing. At Ufa, managers tend to leave the club as a result of their excellent work attracting the attention of a larger club (Viktor Goncharenko impressing last season and moving mid-season to CSKA) and replacements are carefully considered before being appointed. Goncharenko’s replacement Sergei Semak has slotted in seamlessly and has so far this season continued the excellent work in the second part of last season by making Ufa a well-organised side defensively and who are capable of giving some of the largest teams in the division a scare despite only possessing a fraction of their budgets.

Ufa’s season so far can be split into three parts; a good start where two wins and three draws from the opening five games left the club at one stage riding as high as fourth, a lull period between rounds six and ten where the club suffered four defeats in five games and then a resurgence where the club won three games and drew two, currently sitting an impressive seventh place. Even in defeat, Ufa push teams hard, so far only two of their defeats, away to Zenit (3-0) and at home to Rostov (4-1) have been lost by more than a single goal. Semak is also developing the ability to perform well against the large clubs, Ufa has drawn against Spartak 0-0 at home, beaten Lokomotiv 1-0 at home and drawn away at CSKA (0-0). Semak and Ufa are quite similar in defensive organisation to Sean Dyche and Burnley in the English Premier League, currently winning plaudits for their displays this season. Semak and Ufa are equally worthy of such praise and I can see Semak soon being linked to one of the top Russian clubs whenever a managerial vacancy becomes available.

Positives: Conceding only sixteen goals at the half-way point demonstrates Ufa’s sound defence because they keep together a small squad with little player rotation. As a result, all the members of the squad are closely knit and know each other’s games well. Finally, the aforementioned results against larger sides in the league are proof that they don’t solely pick up their points against the smaller teams.

Negatives: Ufa is a side who do sometimes find goal-scoring difficult as emphasised by them only scoring thirteen goals. After impressively reaching the Quarter Finals of the cup last season, this season saw a poor exit in the last 32 of the competition to second-tier Olimpiyets Nizhny Novgorod on penalties. Finally, the 4-1 home league defeat against Rostov was a disappointing result as Ufa are normally so competitive at home.

Grade: 7/10 – Another good season so far for Ufa and Semak, the club looks like it will comfortably achieve its pre-season objective.

 

FC Ural

Last Season: 11th

Pre-season Expectations: Stabilise in mid-table (Between 7th and 11th)

Current Position: 5th

Like Ufa, Ural is another example of a side who have come up from the second tier FNL in 2012/13 and are now in their fifth straight season in the top flight. Each successive-flight season has seen progress for the club from Ekaterinburg, emphasised by their run to the cup final last season where they were defeated by Lokomotiv. This season, however, promises to be the best season yet for Ural.

After fifteen games, the Bumblebees under the guidance of veteran manager Aleksandr Tarkhanov at the midway point sit an impressive fifth place in the RFPL which should they maintain it would qualify the club for next season’s Europa League. The club’s stats for goals scored (eighteen) and goals conceded (fourteen) so far stack up well for a side capable of maintaining a European challenge throughout the season. Another sign of optimism is that both at home and on the road, Ural is capable of picking up a similar number of points, so far, Ural has recorded a win away against a historically larger club such as Rubin and also managed an away draw against Krasnodar, Ural also has the distinction of being the only club so far in the RFPL to be unbeaten at home, with even clubs as large as Zenit and CSKA failing to beat them at home.

Ural’s mid-table stability has made them an attractive destination for young players at some of the larger Russian clubs who cannot break through into the first team. Perfect examples include two 23-year old summer signings, midfielders Yuri Bavin and Aleksei Evseev who have both featured regularly this season. 21-year-old Russian central defender Nikita Chernov also arrived on a season-long loan from CSKA and is gaining valuable first team experience in preparation for returning to his parent club and becoming a regular. Fellow summer signings such as Armenian defender Varazdat Haroyan and Cameroonian central midfielder Petrus Boumal have also settled in well rounding off an impressive summer recruitment. With their historic Central Stadium undergoing renovation works for next summer’s World Cup, reopening the upgraded 23,000 capacity arena with Europa League football is a very attainable objective in what has been an excellent season for Ural so far.

Positives: The unbeaten home record, excellent summer recruitment of young players such as Bavin, Evseev, Haroyan and Boumal who have potential to improve further in the future, only losing tw0 games all season, the joint fewest in the league alongside Zenit. Finally, the form of 29-year-old Romanian attacking midfielder Eric Bicfalvi, Ural’s top scorer so far with five goals.

Negatives: The disappointing last 32 cup exit to second-tier Shinnik Yaroslavl after having reached the final last season. Finally, whilst Bicfalvi (five goals) and Evseev (4 goals) have contributed with goals, the lack of a reliable source of goals from one of the club’s strikers could be a concern. Georgian Giorgi Chanturia and Russian Vladimir Ilyin have both been used in that role with similar playing time but both only have scored a combined 4 goals. Unearthing a goalscorer in the winter transfer window could be the final piece in Ural’s European Qualification Jigsaw.

Grade: 9/10 – Joint top of the class so far alongside Lokomotiv, Ural will now hope to qualify for the Europa League and round off a so far excellent season.

 

Zenit St. Petersburg

Last Season: 3rd

Pre-season Expectations: Win the RFPL

Current Position: 2nd

After two disappointing third-placed finishes in the 2015/16 and 2016/17 seasons, the powerbrokers at SPb’s largest club Zenit decided that drastic action was needed to return the club to the top of Russian football and then in the next few seasons break through and reach the Quarter Finals of the Champions League. Out went veteran Romanian manager Mircea Lucescu, in came Roberto Mancini.He then signed €85 million of playing talent, including five Argentines from overseas – Matias Kranevitter, Leandro Paredes, Sebastian Driussi, Emmanuel Mammana and Emiliano Rigoni and three players critical to Rostov’s success in recent seasons – Aleksandr Erokhin and Cristian Noboa and striker Dimitri Poloz. Out went some of the failed signings of the Lucescu regime such as Slovak winger Robert Mak and Brazilian central midfielder Hernani. Zenit started the season as clear favourites for the title.

After the first seven games of the Mancini revolution, it looked like Zenit had one hand on the title already, the club had won six of them, including a 5-1 home demolition of defending champions Spartak, had a significant lead in the championship, had scored sixteen goals at an average of over two per game, conceding just three goals. The new signings such as Paredes and Driussi looked to be settling in well, Aleksandr Kokorin was a man reborn under Mancini weighing in with goals and assists and results in Europe which included a 3-1 home victory over Spanish side Real Sociedad were impressive.

Yet recently, Zenit has come off the rails, the club is currently on a four-match winless run in the league which has included two defeats at home against Arsenal Tula (1-0) and Lokomotiv (3-0), the latter of which saw the Railroaders replace Zenit at the top of the league. Furthermore, a late Kokorin goal saved Zenit from a group defeat in the Europa League against Rosenborg and the form of some of the summer signings, most notably Driussi has declined spectacularly over the last month. Zenit, with the quality of their first eleven and depth of their squad, remains favourites to win the title this season and having secured qualification for the last 32 of the Europa League, they also look well equipped to have a run to the latter stages of that competition. They must now use the upcoming international break (which has come at a good time for the club) to rediscover that early season form which at one stage saw them running away with the league.

Positives: The excellent 5-1 win against Spartak underlined Zenit’s status as title favourites, the form of big summer signing Leandro Paredes from Roma has by and large been excellent, the highlight of which was a midfield maestro display in the 3-1 victory against Real Sociedad in the Europa League. Finally, Mancini has managed to get the best out of Aleksandr Kokorin and with eight league goals so far, Kokorin finally looks to be fulfilling his early career promise this season.

Negatives: The poor 3-2 defeat to second-tier city rivals Dinamo Saint Petersburg in the last 32 of the cup, the way that Zenit was ripped apart by Loko in their recent 3-0 home defeat against the Railroaders highlighted a vulnerability of their ageing defence to pacy counter attacks. Finally, the recent form of some of the summer signings such as Driussi, who despite having three league goals this season has not scored since the 3-0 home win against Ufa.

Grade: 7.5/10 – Zenit looked set for top marks given how well they started the season, however, the early cup exit and the recent drop in form have dropped their grade. I still believe Zenit will win the title, however, they must rediscover their early season form.

 

Author: Richard Pike

Wigan Athletic season ticket holder whose first memories of Russian football were TV highlights of Spartak’s 4-1 victory against Arsenal in the 2000-01 Champions League. Huge fan of the Russian Premier League, other mid-ranking European leagues and the English Football League

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