Our panel consists of:
Question 1: CSKA lost their three games last week while Krasnodar won their three. Which club is best suited to take the 2nd place before they face each other on Sunday?
Saul: I would say Krasnodar. Despite CSKA having the greater experience, they have looked a fading force since the winter. Krasnodar, on the other hand, are in the ascendency and do have experience of their own (e.g. Izmailov, Shirokov). I Tweeted earlier in the season that this will be the year Krasnodar finally usurp Kuban’ as the city’s number one team – but it could also be remembered in years to come as the season when they became the main challenger to Zenit.
Aleks: Both the game and end-of-season standings are tough to call – CSKA have been more or less their usual selves this season, and Krasnodar have really stepped up their game. In terms of their upcoming match, the one thing that stands out is CSKA’s home field advantage. They’ve scored most of their goals at home and have conceded the second least number of home goals after – surprise! – Yuri Semin’s Mordovia. My forecast is a high-scoring draw or a CSKA win, with a chance of questionable refereeing. In terms of the league table, I think CSKA can finish 2nd if they win most of their remaining games. However, it’s that time of the season when their short bench becomes rather noticeable, so I wouldn’t rule out a 2nd place finish for Krasnodar.
Joel: Judging from what we have witnessed recently, Krasnodar appear to be in an overall better moment to claim the second place of the table at the end of the season. The work Oleg Kononov has been conducting at the team is remarkable and the players who arrived this season offered Krasnodar that extra something that the team failed to achieve last term. Marat Izmailov, who has apparently “returned from the dead”, offered the team’s intermediate zone plenty more creativity and if to that we add the consistency of Pavel Mamaev and the talent of Odil Ahmedov, the result is quite probably the best midfield line of the Russian Premier League. If the Krasnodar Krai’s Bulls win next weekend’s match against CSKA in Moscow, no one will surely prevent them from securing the second place of the table this season.
Andrew: The momentum and romance with which Krasnodar are building towards the end of the season is irresistible, so it is tempting to side with the southerners. They have the obvious advantage of four points before Sunday’s showdown, which is fast becoming a crucial date in the race for Champions League football next season, and after this weekend their run in of four home games in the final six games makes life even more favourable, especially since they face four teams in the current bottom five. Their early season defensive record was phenomenal, so on paper they ought to be favourites.
Lose against CSKA however, and they might be in a spot of bother. With Dinamo away also to come, they could easily find themselves under pressure. CSKA have a huge amount of experience in their squad, and although they have much tougher fixtures, they know how to get over the line. It will be a considerable ask for them to overcome their shocking defeat to rock-bottom Amkar, though.
I have a sneaking suspicion Dinamo might just sneak second place if CSKA beat Krasnodar. Psychologically they will be strengthened by their away win against the Army Men, and they have the last game of the season that has the potential to be a winner-takes-all against the Bulls.
Toke: Before this season I predicted CSKA as the disappointment of the year. If they finish third, or lower, after back-to-back championships I will say I was right. I believe the winner of the match on Sunday will take the second place. Even though Krasnodar’s form has been incredible lately, are CSKA much more experienced in these kinds of situations, which is their best asset right now.
When I look at Krasnodar’s squad it is however clear for me, that nothing is impossible for this group of players. Kononov has managed to make otherwise difficult players like Shirokov, Bystrov and Mamaev fit in perfectly, and I think they will get away with at least a draw, which will allow them to maintain their four point lead and eventually secure them the second place.
Stefano: The project of Krasnodar is continuing more bright than ever. As Shirokov said in a recent interview, they gained a lot of experience playing in Europa League and thus has the team become more confident in its qualities. In my opinion is Krasnodar currently the favorites to take the 2nd place. CSKA is going through a tough crisis and I don’t think that Slutskiy will be able to make another miracle. However, I’m sure that the match on Sunday will be very interesting and if you love football, you should not miss it.
Question 2: The young Spartak talents Bryzgalov and Davydov have played a lot recently. Is the club’s youth strategy starting to show off or is Yakin simply desperate and out of options?
Saul: I think there’s a mix of both – but it’s great to see Spartak giving young Russian players a go (something sides like Zenit have forgotten all about). In terms of Yakin, I expect he will go in the summer given they’ve fallen way short of that target of Champions League qualification. Hopefully the new manager will keep giving the young players a chance.
Aleks: At this point, it’s too early to tell, especially with Bryzgalov. He’s only played three full games for Spartak, in which the Red-and-Whites lost two and drew one, conceding four goals. The draw against Kuban was a result of the offside trap being used unsuccessfully by the three centre backs. Davydov is a centre forward, and we haven’t seen any goals from him yet. He’s started in six games and only played two full games. He’s done well in the secondary striker role, though, creating chances for Quincy Promes and assisting the latter’s goal in the 3:1 loss to Krasnodar. Davydov has potential; I think we can expect more of the same from him as he gets more playing time.
Joel: First of all, the intake of talented young players at Spartak’s first team was certainly more of an imposition from Leonid Fedun rather than an idea of Murat Yakin. Spartak’s owner want to capitalize the investment he has made in the team’s youth ranks over the recent years and needs such young footballers to have some playing time at the first team, in order to capitalize his resources. On the other hand, players such as Bryzgalov, Davydov, Mitryushkin, Timofeev, Krotov, Zuev, Melkadze and several others from Bushmanov’s Spartak-2 are the future of the team, which cannot continue spending ridiculous amounts of money on “gold diggers” that only want to play at Russian football to fill their pockets with easy money.
These new lot of young players “produced” in Tarasovka’s headquarters might give Spartak’s supporters plenty of reasons to smile in the near future, but in order to such thing to happen, the Narodnaya komanda need to bring in a new manager that nurtures a great passion for the club and that is willing to awake up the Russian football sleeping giant.
Andrew: It is great to see any young Russian talent getting some game time, but Spartak are in real trouble. When the fans are calling for Alenichev to come back and replace Yakin with the club comfortably outside the European places, it is impossible to view the selections of Bryzgalov and Davydov without a certain cynicism – is Yakin having one last throw of the dice, trying to win back a scrap of support by staying true to the club’s tradition of producing youngsters? Davydov in particular finds himself in the middle of the fallout of Dzyuba’s departure and Movsisyan’s lack of match sharpness, so he’s damned if he does, damned if he doesn’t – score goals, and people will say it’s only because of circumstance; fail to score, and he will fail to live up to his reputation.
Yakin was a classy player in his day, and I am loathe to simply jump on the bandwagon and slate him for the club’s lack of success purely because he isn’t a ‘Spartak’ man. Movsisyan hasn’t scored since early November, and with only Quincy Primes scoring more than three league goals Yakin hasn’t been backed up on the field. Results are results though, so I think the desperation will be cut short in the summer.
Toke: He is out of options. Before this season Spartak lost Waris and Barrios, leaving them with Movsisyan, Dzyuba and Davydov up front. Dzyuba has already left, while Movsisyan still has not hit the same highs as before his awful injury. That leaves Davydov as Spartak’s only real option up front. Davydov has showed some nice things, but it is also clear that he is still not ready to this kind of responsibility. I fear Yakin and Capello are doing him a disservice, when they put him under this much pressure already.
It is always great to see young Russian players on the field, something that happens too seldom, but I think it is still too early to conclude anything on Spartak’s youth project. I hope Fedun keeps his head cool during the summer’s transfer period and doesn’t fall for yet another ‘Shirokov offer’.
Stefano: I think that it’s quite clear that Spartak decided to put a lot of work on the academy, which is one of the best in Russia. Both Bryzgalov and Davydov are good talents, as Mitryushkin or Krotov. Yakin are confident in young players and I’m happy that RPL has coaches like him. If Spartak continue to trust his talents, they will be very happy in coming years.
Question 3: Fyodor Smolov has scored three goals in his last two matches. Is he finally moving away from his image as a laughingstock?
Saul: He’s finally doing what he should have done all along. I remember chatting to someone close to the Dinamo youth set up who said Smolov was an absolute phenomenon as he came through the ranks, head and shoulders above everyone else – probably why Feyenoord were interested in him back in the day. Like a number of Russian players in their early/mid twenties, though, he seems to have focused on ‘chillin’ rather than developing as a footballer.
Aleks: I think it’s probably a lucky streak that’ll be over as soon as it started. We’ve seen the same from Kokorin – in fact, we’ve seen him score a hat-trick earlier this season. It’s likely that Smolov is experiencing his 15 minutes of football fame. However, I won’t deny that FC Ural has been a good environment for him that has allowed him to be more productive as a player. He’s already scored more goals on loan at Ural than he has playing for both Dynamo and Anzhi combined. I think they would do well to sign him from Dynamo, but I wouldn’t expect him to start scoring 15-20 goals a season.
Joel: The Saratov-born striker was and probably still is one of those promising players that is still struggling to make a stand when the time arrives. The Russian football is packed with similar cases. Ruslan Pimenov, Dmitri Sychev, Yevgeni Savin and Roman Kontsedalov, among others, are fairly good examples of underachievers.
For the sake of his professional career, let’s hope that Smolov can continue to follow this path he has found at Ural in order not to fall in the oblivion box of Russian football in two or three years’ time.
Andrew: Smolov is an odd case really. Despite showing such promise with the Russia Under 21 team in the qualifiers for the 2013 European Championships, he had only scored five league goals before this season in over 100 first team matches. Given that this is his ninth season since his debut as a professional, he has played an alarmingly low number of games at club level, which for a striker is crushing for one’s confidence. His wife seems to attract as much attention as he does nowadays, although Ural have offered him a lifeline. Whatever behavioural issues he may have had in the past, it is heartening to see him hit some form, although past experience teaches us to be wary of false dawns.
His previous moves on loan have proven to be mistakes – Anzhi’s circus was hardly the place to settle down and work hard at restoring his reputation, and the brief flirtation with European football at Feyenoord was too early. Ural’s battle to stay in the Premier League is ideal for forming the qualities he is going to need to develop quickly before his career disappears for good, and the signs are looking up. Although Kevin Kuranyi has spoken to Cherchesov about extending his stay, he’s already 33, so Smolov may have a chance to finally nail down a spot up front with Kokorin when he returns to Dinamo at the end of the season.
Toke: A while back Andriy Voronin told a story from when he signed with Dinamo. He was told Dinamo had two young Russian strikers who were looking at a bright future – Aleksandr Kokorin and Fyodor Smolov. Moving through the ranks Smolov was always seen as at least as good as Kokorin. Smolov managed to score 15 goals in 28 matches for the U21 national team, but then something happened to him. Like many other young players he lost motivation and he has never really done anything since his senior debut.
He has only scored 12 senior goals, seven of them coming in this season, three of them in his last two games. That is 25 percent of all his senior goals in the last two matches! He is 25 and has played more than 100 professional matches for his clubs!
Smolov has shown glimpse of his potential this season, but let us not forget that the amount of good matches from his side can still be counted on one hand. I hope he has finally realized that talent is not enough in football on this level. But perhaps he has simply discovered that his contract with Dinamo expires in the summer of 2016, and that he needs to perform now in order to get another big contract.
Stefano: The situation with Smolov is both funny and incredible. I think that he has good qualities, but he couldn’t play for a top side. Ural or a club that is a bit stronger could be his dimension. In my opinion, he won’t be able to make the same difference in Dinamo or in other Moscow clubs as he did in Ekaterinburg. Furthermore, Tarkhanov had a big impact on him, so with another coach everything could change again.
Question 4: All the clubs fighting in the relegation battle, except Ufa, have won points lately. Who will survive and who will take the trip down?
Saul: The bottom two will take the automatic places, I think – Ufa have really dipped in form, and are being hampered by playing their ‘home’ games at neutral venues. The play offs will be very interesting: Arsenal v Krilya Sovietov or Torpedo v Tosno would be very difficult to predict.
Aleks: The relegation battle is really fierce this season. The candidates for relegation keep changing – Rostov recently moved out of the zone, as did Ural. Amkar, who are currently last in the table, have an extra game – the postponed match against Dynamo. I think Arsenal Tula have a good shot at narrowly avoiding relegation, if they get points in all of their remaining games. They play Amkar next. It’s an away game, so they shouldn’t be struggling for the three points. They’ve done well to not concede as much on the road as some of the other teams. Plus, they thrashed Amkar 4:0 back in November.
I’m 100% sure Amkar will be relegated. Their 1:0 win against CSKA will give them a bit of confidence; they not only beat the reigning league champions, but also ended their winless streak of 11 games. However, they’re just not Premier League material. They were a mid-table team last season, but the league has gotten much more competitive, and they just haven’t played well under the managers that came after Cherchesov. I like Ufa (some bias here as manager Igor Kolyvanov is a former Dynamo player), but they’ve only got 2 points in their last 7 games, of which they lost 5. They’ve struggled against the likes of Amkar and Rostov and failed to get a draw against Arsenal. I do however think credit should be given where it is due. Kolyvanov promoted a team that’s only been around for 4 years to the Premier League in two seasons. One team – Rostov, Arsenal, or Torpedo – will avoid the relegation playoffs. My guess is Arsenal and Torpedo are playoff-bound. I hope they both make it through to next season’s PL, though, and that Alenichev doesn’t fall for the big bucks by leaving Tula for the managerial merry-go-round of Spartak Moscow.
Joel: It is not easy to predict such things, nevertheless, if we have a closer look at all those teams that kept dwelling in or near the pits of the relegation zone, we can say that probably Amkar and Ufa will not fall to the catacombs of the Russian football second tier. Notwithstanding, none of those seven teams (Mordovia, Rostov, Ural, Arsenal Tula, Torpedo, Ufa, Amkar) is safe right now and everything can still happen in the remaining matches of the season.
Andrew: Rostov has made some good recent signings in Dzyuba and Ivan Novoseltsev, and with their recent form it would be surprising if they slipped back down. At this late stage, form is everything, and four wins in the last five more than make sup for their awful first half of the season. That farcical pitch debacle for the CSKA ‘home’ game aside, three wins in the last month for Arsenal gives the league’s joint-lowest scorers a boost, so if anyone in the bottom four is going to escape, my money’s on Alenichev’s men. Monday’s match away to Amkar will be crucial for them in particular, but with five of then last seven games away from home including Zenit and Dinamo, they will have to rely on then others around them stumbling. Ufa and Amkar have left themselves with too much to do having lost to their nearest rivals, so I can’t see them crawling to safety.
If anyone drops down to the bottom four, I still think it might be Mordovia. They’ve won once since their shock 1-0 win over Zenit last November, and only Rostov and Torpedo have conceded more. In the FNL promotion race, it looks like being two from Tom, Krilya and Tosno who will make the promotion/relegation playoffs, all of whom are well-drilled sides who should have the measure of Torpedo and Arsenal or Mordovia.
Toke: It is really close in the bottom, where we have seven clubs fighting to avoid relegation. Amkar’s players have not been paid in months, which definitely are not helping on the morale, but they still managed to beat CSKA last week and that can create some momentum.
I expect Ufa to finish on one of the two lowest spots in the league. It has been an uphill battle for them the entire season, since they have only played three of their home games at their own ground.
Torpedo Moscow will finish on the other relegation spot. They will be without the support of their fans for the next many matches and that will cost points.
It is difficult to predict who will finish on the playoff spots, but Arsenal Tula and Amkar look weaker than the rest of the clubs. They will struggle against the best clubs from FNL.
Stefano: Ufa’s performance in this part of the season has been really awful. I wouldn’t expect such a finish for Kolyvanov’s team. On the other hand, Arsenal and Rostov have made great results and thanks to them the fight in relegation zone became funnier and funnier. I think that everything will be decided in the last RPL week. Arsenal has marvelous fans, but probably the weakest team. Torpedo, instead, is the exactly opposite. Regarding Rostov, I’m sure they’re in good hands with Berdyev. And Amkar? It’s difficult to say. In the last round they beat CSKA at Zvezda Stadium. However, it seems difficult a remount. If I have to make a forecast, I say that Rostov and Ural survives Torpedo and Ufa to play-off, Arsenal and Amkar relegated.
Author: Toke Møller Theilade
Brøndby supporter, groundhopper and more importantly Editor-in-Chief at Russianfootballnews.com. As a hopeless romantic, I still believe Fyodor Smolov and Viktoria Lopyreva has a future together.