RFPL Mid-Season Review – Part Three

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 TWO HERE

Part Three reviews FC Rostov, Rubin Kazan, SKA Khabarovsk and Spartak Moscow.

 

FC Rostov

Last Season: 6th

Pre-Season Expectations: Mid-table stability (Between 7th and 11th)

Current Position: 11th

So far for Rostov, 2017-18 has represented a tale of two halves, in the first nine games of the season, the club only lost once, and were riding as high as third in the standings at one point. However, the last six games have seen four defeats and the club’s last win in the league was a 4-1 away win against Ufa way back in early August. This poor run has seen the club drop from the aforementioned third place to eleventh in the standings.

It is important to acknowledge, however, the financial circumstances that engulfed Rostov before this current season started. Rostov stars who were part of the club’s memorable title challenge in 2015/16 and their exploits in European competition in 2016/17 left the club in their droves this summer including Aleksandr Yerokhin, Fyodor Kudryashov, Christian Noboa, Dimitry Poloz, Sardar Azmoun and Vladimir Granat. Also departing was the most important piece of the Rostov jigsaw, coach Kurban Berdyev who rejoined his former employers Rubin.

The player departures left new incoming coach Leonid Kuchuk with a major task on his hands. New signings, such as Polish centre-back Maciej Wilusz, Icelandic Sverrir Ingason and recalled players from loans last season such as Malian centre midfielder Moussa Doumbia, were by and large unknown quantities and people were unsure as to how they would perform. Perhaps teams playing Rostov early doors were surprised themselves by the unknown quantities of these new players which resulted in a lot of positive early results. Recent results suggest that the surprise factor surrounding these players has now disappeared. Despite this, Rostov remain on track to achieve their pre-season objective of mid-table stability. Kuchuk and his team, however, must address this current poor run of form.

Positives: The form of veteran 36-year-old Belarusian midfielder Timofei Kalachev, who is Rostov’s top scorer this season with four goals. 21-year-old winger Aleksandr Zuyev has also impressed for Rostov this season with two goals and several impressive performances which will have impressed his parent club Spartak Moscow. Finally, with only fourteen goals conceded in fifteen, the new, aforementioned defensive pairing of Wilusz and Ingason have impressed.

Negatives: The lack of a goalscoring forward is affecting Rostov badly, their forwards have only scored one goal in the league between them, courtesy of Vladimir Dyadyun. Inconsistency remains a big problem as emphasised by their excellent start and their current poor run. Finally, the loss to Amkar at home in the last sixteen of the cup was a big disappointment as with many top sides eliminated from the tournament, victory would have seen a relatively pathway to the final.

Grade: 5.5/10 – A mixed bag so far for Rostov and Kuchuk, the team has shown promise and is capable of finishing mid-table, but they must break this current barren run as soon as possible.

 

Rubin Kazan

Last Season: 9th

Pre-Season Expectations: Top Half Finish/Qualify for Europe (Between 8th-5th)

Current Position: 10th

Of all last season’s mid-table sides in the RFPL, the one where pre-season expectations were the most optimistic was Rubin Kazan. After finishing ninth in a season marred by inconsistency, Rubin announced the return of their messiah, veteran manager Kurban Berdyev, who won their only two Russian titles in 2008 and 2009, to replace Spaniard Javi Gracia. Some impressive signings were made including Russian international defender Fyodor Kudryashov and the return of Iranian attacker Sardar Azmoun. Optimism was aplenty to challenge for Europa League qualification this season, yet despite this, Rubin have been a disappointment so far.

There has been an element of bad luck, as emphasised by Rubin’s opening two games of the season where despite playing well against both Krasnodar at home and Zenit away, both times were on the receiving end of one-goal defeats. Despite this, however, I did expect Berdyev to have made slightly more progress with Rubin so far this season. Last season a lot of players were acquired, many from overseas in an ambitious bid for a top-five finish, which ultimately did not work out under Gracia. Because many of those players remain, they should now be more settled in Russian football in their second season, so should in theory now be delivering better performances, however, this has not happened. Rubin this season still seem plagued by a similar problem as to last season; an inability to put together a strong run of form. Their longest winning streak has been two games all season, despite a six-game unbeaten run in August. They have currently only won one in their last nine in the league.

Berdyev took a long time to make Rubin Kazan double title winners in his first spell at the club between 2001 and 2013 and despite the results so far, the 2-1 away win against CSKA was a classic Berdyev underdog victory. It is clear proof that if he gets the time and patience, within eighteen months, he may well get Rubin challenging for the Champions League once more. Rubin in the second half of the season have several home matches to come against the bigger teams, who Berdyev is excellent at getting results against. Rubin won’t qualify for Europe, but I do see them improving in the second half of the season and finishing in the top half.

Positives: The aforementioned 2-1 away win against CSKA was a trademark Berdyev victory, Rubin look sound defensively, only conceding 14 goals in 15 games and as the 6-0 victory at home against Anzhi shows, Rubin are capable of good attacking football under Berdyev on their day.

Negatives: Rubin have only scored seventeen goals in fifteen games, which is a disappointment and have been struggling to score consistently since Brazilian forward Jonathas was sold to German club Hannover 96 just before the closing of the transfer window. This was way back in August but he is still currently Rubin’s top scorer for the season with four league goals. The next highest scorers are four players on two goals each, and amending this is an urgent priority in the January window. Finally, Rubin will be frustrated with their 2-1 home defeat to second-tier Krylia Sovetov in the cup, a realistic target this season and it would have brought with it European qualification.

Grade: 5/10 – Underwhelming. This describes Rubin’s season so far, though writing Berdyev off would be foolish given his track record. Turning around Rubin’s fortunes will require time, and I do expect them to improve in the second half of the season.

 

SKA Khabarovsk

Last Season: 4th in FNL (promoted via Promotion/Relegation playoffs)

Pre-Season Expectations: Survival via the Promotion/Relegation play-offs (14th place)

Current Position: 16th

Even casual observers of Russian football prior to the end of last season would not have had SKA Khabarovsk down as a team to display too much interest in. All suddenly changed though with their two-legged victory on away goals against Orenburg to win promotion to the RFPL for the first time in their history. SKA, based in Russia’s Far East close to the Chinese border have emerged as a curious and intriguing addition to the landscape of the league.

Their promotion was what every other team in the league dreaded, an eight-hour flight to Khabarovsk for away games from European Russia. Travel time and cost combined with midweek cup fixture acts as a great equaliser for SKA given their limited squad and budget. SKA have certainly taken advantage, in seven home matches this season, SKA have lost just once, 2-0 in the opening matchday against Zenit. SKA’s presence in the RFPL might have Igor Akinfeev secretly championing further expansion of the Japanese J-League after he complained  in 2007 that fellow Far East side Luch Vladivostok should ‘play in the Japanese League’, however, whilst all other teams will bemoan the trip to/from Khabarovsk, they only have to do the journey once, whereas SKA have to do it fifteen times .

It comes as no surprise, therefore, to see that SKA’s away form is the poorest in the league having taken only two points from eight games so far. Yet, despite this huge travelling disadvantage, SKA have competed in nearly every game this season, only losing two games, Amkar away (3-0) and Krasnodar away (4-1) by more than a two-goal margin. Not to mention, SKA recorded a six-game unbeaten run in the league, five of the six games were draws, nonetheless, an impressive achievement. Even more impressive have been their displays in the cup, where they have seen off second-tier side Dinamo St Petersburg to reach the Quarter Finals and have a winnable home tie against second-tier Shinnik Yaroslavl. I still expect SKA to be relegated at the end of the season, however, they will certainly fight until the bitter end.

Positives: The team’s form in the cup, being competitive in most of their league matches so far, taking advantage of the huge travelling distances for visiting teams by making their home ground a relative fortress. Furthermore, in 27-year-old Serbia forward Miroslav Markovic – signed from Bohemians Prague 1905 – they have someone who can in a struggling side chip in with goals, giving them a chance to avoid the drop. He has scored three league goals by the mid-point already this season.

Negatives: Away from home, SKA has unsurprisingly struggled and this puts pressure on them maintaining their home form. Furthermore, despite Markovic potentially giving them a chance to survive, SKA have only scored eleven league goals in fifteen games so far. Finally, the location factor counts against SKA also when it comes to recruitment in the January transfer window. Asking a player and his family to uproot themselves over 8,000 km from Moscow is not an easy sell, then factoring into account the amount of time flying on planes and living in hotels away from your family as SKA this season often play away and home matches in blocks of two to avoid logistical complications. This could have been one of the reasons for one of SKA’s stars of last season’s promotion, Argentine midfielder Juan Lescano to leave and join Anzhi before the close of the summer transfer window.

Grade: 7/10 – A good effort by the team from Russia’s Far East and whether or not they stay up or go down, they have won the respect of many this season considering the location complications that they face. Their run in the cup bumps up their grade further.

READ MORE: Reforming the Trans-Siberian Football League: The Eastern Solution

 

Spartak Moscow

Last Season: 1st

Pre-Season Expectations: Retain the league title

Current Position: 6th

After the delight and euphoria following last season’s title, 2017/18 so far has been a big come down for Spartak. The People’s Club started their season with a bump after losing a two-goal lead away against fierce rivals Dinamo in a 2-2 draw. Some of the stars of last season such as Denis Glushakov, Fernando, Dimitry Kombarov and Serdar Tasci early in the campaign looked like shadows of the players from last season. August represented the nadir for Spartak, as sandwiched between a 2-0 home win against Arsenal Tula and a disappointing 0-0 draw against SKA away, saw a 5-1 away thrashing at Zenit, a 2-1 loss away to CSKA and a 4-3 home loss to Lokomotiv, the latter of which dropped Spartak down to a shocking eleventh place in the standings.

Spartak owner Leonid Fedun has been known for making managerial changes in his time as owner and after the home defeat to Loko and a poor 1-1 draw against Slovenian side Maribor in the Champions League group stage, rumours were circulating about the future of manager Massimo Carrera. The Italian, hugely popular with Spartak’s fanbase, remained in charge and suddenly the rediscovery of the Spartak of last season emerged. Between the Loko defeat on 19th August and the 2-1 loss on Matchday 4 of the Champions League group stage away to Sevilla, Spartak were unbeaten in thirteen games, including a 1-1 draw against Liverpool at home and a superb 5-1 home victory against Sevilla in the Champions League. Spartak also won two matches in the cup to progress to the Quarter Finals, where they face second-tier Krylia Sovetov. With Zenit, Loko, CSKA and Krasnodar all out, Spartak have a great chance now to win that competition for the first time since 2003.

Whilst catching the top two of Loko and Zenit looks out of reach, 3rd place (guaranteeing a Champions League play-off qualifying spot next season), a Russian Cup victory and potentially a run in Europe in the Europa League knockouts post Christmas (which they are likely to be in) could salvage this season and help Carrera stay at the club beyond the summer.

Positives: The thirteen-game unbeaten streak, performances against talented Western European opposition in the Champions League like Liverpool and Sevilla, Dutch winger Quincy Promes is one of the few Spartak players who can hold his head high with his performances all year and the imminent return from injury of one of last season’s star men, Roman Zobnin gives hope of a strong second half of the season for Spartak.

Negatives: The shameful 5-1 thrashing away at the hands of Zenit, too many dropped points against the likes of Amkar at home in a 0-0 draw and losing two-goal leads against both Dinamo and Tosno away, the latter of which was playing against ten men. The defensive frailties that characterised Spartak over the last decade have returned this season conceding twenty goals in fifteen games. Finally, the dropping of two points from a winning position away at Maribor in the Champions League, had Spartak held on, with the way the other results have panned out in their Champions League group, they would likely have only needed a victory against Maribor at home to qualify for the last 16 of the Champions League, whereas now, the Europa League knockouts look more likely.

Grade: 5.5/10 – The thirteen-game unbeaten streak saves Spartak from an embarrassingly low grade here, Carrera and his players now need to rediscover the title-winning form of last season for the second half of the year, finish at least third and win the cup to salvage their season.

READ PART FOUR HERE

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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