It is time for another Round Table here at RussianFootballNews.com. The Russian Premier League starts this weekend and our panel will be discussing what we can expect from the last part of the season.
Our panel consists of:
1: What did the fall season teach you?
Saul: Plus ca change, plus c’est la meme chose. The wealthiest side is top and looks likely to win the league (despite not playing well as a team); Spartak are experimenting with a foreign manager and failing, having expected him to bring instant success; the new sides are struggling, including with their finances; Terek are mid table; further down clubs have begun to disappear from the league structure. Having said all that, I’m really looking forward to things starting up again in a few weeks.
Aleks: The first half of the season showed that Spartak are doing better than is generally thought. They’re the only team that’s currently unbeaten at home. Despite not having stability up front, Dynamo are doing better than expected, and have so far made it farther in the Europa League than they ever have, joining a select few teams to have gone unbeaten in the group stage in the process. Another thing we learned is that Miodrag Bozovic is one of the most underrated managers ever. He led Rostov to their first silverware (the Russian Cup). They ended last season in 7th place, nowhere near the relegation zone. Now, they’re on the verge of being relegated! Their start to the season was the exact opposite of last season, but I think the club’s management played a bigger role in their regression than the head coach.
Joel: Russian football continues being its old self so far this season with just a significant difference when compared to previous years: considerably less money. All the economical and financial problems Russia is facing these days have also had a strong impact on football but now it will be up to the teams if they want to continue to spend the money they don’t have or if they are willing, once and for all, to look inside and give their young “cadets” an opportunity to make a stand at the first teams.
Andrew: It taught me that amidst all the negative news concerning racism and the shocking devaluation of the rouble that there are positives to be taken from the fans. The interview with the @WeAreCSKA11 campaign leader was an eye-opening side of Russian support that rarely gets covered in the media, and the rallying around of different clubs and their fans in solidarity was heartening. Even the #СпаситеРотор campaign showed a unity that is much needed. That said, the fact that Rotor are only one of many clubs to have fallen on such hard times shows a huge amount of work is still to be done to maintain the sustainability and interest in the league system.
Toke: Not a lot honestly. As expected are Zenit leading comfortably, while the ‘new’ teams in the league are struggling, even though they have improved since the beginning. I have been impressed by Dinamo’s Valbuena, who in my opinion was the best player in the league in the fall. Alenichev’s Arsenal has also been exciting despite the lack of points. I think Alenichev can turn into a very good coach when he gets more experienced.
Stefano: So far RPL has been really interesting. A lot of clubs are fighting for an European spot and this makes the league more and more balanced. In particular, I think that two teams have done a great season: Dinamo and Mordoviya. The former demonstrated his value game after game. The latter, instead, was the real surprise of the year. Generally speaking, the fall season taught that nothing can be predicted. Kuban’, for example, was making a fantastic season under Goncharenko and now after him they’re a living a small crisis with Kuchuk, both for bad results and problems with fans. Furthermore, a team as Rostov is at the bottom of the league. Despite being a good team, they’ve made an awful season. Maybe with the arrivals of Granat, Azmoun and Dzyuba they might remain in RPL. However, this situation is paradoxical for a club that a few months ago won the Russian Cup. Therefore, it has been demonstrated that you can’t predict anything, so you shouldn’t be surprised if Zenit doesn’t win the title for the second time in a row!
2: CSKA Moscow has sold Doumbia to AS Roma. How will this affect them – both short and long term?
Saul: Short term they will struggle to replace him – I’m not sure the Vagner Love return was ever more than a nice story for the romantics among us, but he would have filled the void. Doumbia’s heir apparent Vitinho has failed to settle in Russia, which happens, so probably good that he’s gone home (at least temporarily). CSKA do have a knack of picking up good players that others miss, though, so let’s see how Alibek Aliyev gets on. I think in the longer term it will be reliance on a signing like this working out, rather than a big splash on a player, that will improve the side.
Aleks: It’s been said over and over again, but CSKA need to lengthen their bench, especially when it comes to forwards. They signed two 18-year-old centre-forwards this year, which is a start. They also have a good secondary-striker in 25-year-old Kirill Panchenko. A team that consistently competes in Europe, however, needs more options. Yes, we’ve seen CSKA succeed even when Doumbia was out injured, but I don’t think that’s something they’ll always be able to pull off. CSKA have the same problem that Dynamo have – no clear, experienced, consistent centre-forwards. It may not visibly affect them short-term. Long-term, they’ll need to sign some experienced players
Joel: It is definitely not easy to replace a talented footballer such as Seydou Doumbia and it is probably fair to say that CSKA don’t have any forward as good as the Ivorian sharpshooter. Doumbia had a fantastic stint with CSKA but one cannot face his departure as a surprise since he had expressed his desire to leave Russian football long ago and his relationship with Leonid Slutsky was probably not the best one. At the age of 27, it was probably time for him to explore a more competitive league and AS Roma might be a good place for to continue to spread his magic, once he manages to overcome the adaptation period to Italian football.
Andrew: Such a powerful, direct and much-loved target man is not going to be easy to replace, and with Dzyuba’s continuing struggle to establish regular first team football as well as Zenit’s unrivalled ability to retain their highly-paid stars, I see this season being tough for CSKA to overtake Zenit in the league. long term, it will obviously be harder than it would have been to recruit a similarly iconic striker, thanks to the economic crisis, but perhaps it could be chance for Slutskiy to utilise his high number of creative midfielders in a more fluid formations. Personally, I’m keeping my fingers crossed for Dzagoev to complete his renaissance and return to his 2012 highs.
Toke: In our Round Table preview for this season I said that CSKA Moscow would disappoint. I think they will lose their Champions League spot to Dinamo, since they have no proven goal scorers in the squad. Ahmed Musa started as the lone striker against Krylya in the cup game, but his strengths are not in front. At least not yet. Roman Eremenko and Bibras Natcho are both scoring a lot of goals from the midfield, but without Doumbia the pressure on them will be increased, and I think the opponents will have more luck closing them down now, when they don’t have to fear Doumbia. CSKA have sent Bazelyuk to Torpedo on loan and the two signings Strandberg and Aliyev are still very young and unexperienced.
When that is said is Leonid Slutsky maybe the best coach in the league and he has many times proved how he can get the absolute maximum out of every player. I will not rule them out.
Stefano: The departure of Doumbia, of course, has been a big loss for CSKA. However, I think that Giner’s club won’t suffer too much from his lack. During his time in Moscow, the Ivorian striker was injured for a long time and Slutskij had always found solutions to replace him. In this transfers window, ‘Armyetsy’ have signed two interesting talents such as Strandberg and Aliev, so in the long term they’ve have already found the substitutes of Doumbia. In the short term, instead, they’ve Musa, who has already demonstrated his value also as forward.
3: How will Spartak do in the spring and will Murat Yakin be their headcoach when next season start?
Saul: I don’t think Yakin will be their head coach next season. Spartak is a club for whom legends are a vital part of its DNA – and outsiders find it hard to make the same progress. I could see Spartak replacing him with Arsenal’s Dmitriy Alenichev at the end of the season, following a mediocre finish – and giving Alenichev the job whether or not he keeps Arsenal up. Which is sad…
Aleks: Spartak have potential, and if they live up to it, they will finish in the top 4 with Yakin. Three of their next five games will allow them to use their home field advantage. Improving their away games can go a long way for them (no pun intended). They concede too many goals. Spartak’s next games on the road will be against Torpedo and Arsenal Tula, so it won’t really be an accurate test for them. Although underestimating the dark horse teams is not recommended – remember that loss at Amkar Perm back in August? I think Yakin will stick around, at least until the end of the season.
Joel: Leonid Fedun has announced last week that Spartak will change their strategy and that for the first time in years they will open the first-team’s door to players “forged” in their academy. These are definitely good news for Spartak’s supporters who after a promising season start have found themselves again on that empty void that has been accompanying the team since the departure of Oleg Romantsev more than a decade ago.
Murat Yakin is a talented manager but, for some reason, he had not been able to deal with some of Spartak’s players huge egos and because of that he ended up losing control of the team. The departure of some of those prima donnas during the Winter transfer window might facilitate things for him and a big intake of Spartak-2 talented young footballers might open a new chapter in the history of Yakin’s leadership at Spartak.
It is still early to say if he will be at the helm of the Krasno-Belye when the next season start, but I believe that everything will depend on what he will achieve with team during the second part of the current campaign.
Andrew: I find the failure to get the best out Dzyuba odd. His previous loan spell at Rostov seemed to have forced Capello’s hand, but perhaps the big man has just run out of chances to consistently. With Movsisyan back they at least have an imposing figure who should guarantee goals, but after a long layoff with injury he might need some time to bed back in. The equation for Yakin is simple; make Europe, or face the sack. I’m going to gamble and say they will make it.
Toke: There were a lot of unrest in the squad in the fall and of course this influenced Spartak’s performances. It will help Spartak that Artem Dzyuba and Roman Shirokov have left the club, since they seemed like some of the reason for the turmoil inside the squad.
Unfortunately Spartak owner Leonid Fedun is trigger happy, and if they don’t get a good start I fear he might sack Yakin. Spartak has FC Krasnodar and Dinamo in the first two games and they will be very important.
I am still not sure if Yakin was the right choice to begin with, but I believe it would be wrong to fire him now. Fedun has to realize it takes time, or an insane amount of money, to build a title winning team. Spartak has tried option number two without luck, I believe it is time to try number one. Jose Mourinho always says that the second season at a club is the best for a manager because the players finally understand what he wants them to do. I think Spartak should give Yakin the chance to prove him right, especially because Mourinho’s recommendation of Yakin reportedly the only thing keeping him at the club right now.
Stefano: I think that Spartak has made a perfect transfers policy during this break of RPL. They started betting seriously on their talents and sold players out from their project such as Bocchetti, Tino Costa or Barrios. Unfortunately, Shirokov and Dzyuba left the club for different reasons, but Yakin could be happy because he has a wide range of young talents that can’t wait to play for Spartak. In my opinion, the greatest mistake of Fedun in recent years was that he bought a lot of mediocre foreign players that have never really improved the squad. Actually, ‘Myaso’ have a great academy and the Nineties demonstrated that Spartak’s talents could dominate in Russia and in Europe. If Yakin reaches to valorize players such as Bryzgalov, Zuev, Davydov or Krotov, I’m sure that Spartak can finish in the top three. Of course, I hope that Yakin will be their Head Coach also for 2015/16 season, but everyone knows the character of Fedun and Spartak fans.
4: Speaking of Spartak Roman Shirokov only lasted six month before he was sent to Krasnodar on loan. How will he and Krasnodar do in the spring?
Saul: Shirokov is a very strong character, and Spartak is, I think, not a place where the headstrong outsider gets on. He has been at Krasnodar before, of course, and did well – I can see a decent half season again. Having said that, I think all the disruptions of the last couple of years will mean his best days are behind him…
Aleks: Krasnodar have not always shown their best game, but like Spartak and Dynamo, they’re doing better than is generally thought. They’re fourth at the moment, and they’re doing as well as they were at the same point last season, albeit having scored a few less goals than before. So far, Roman Shirokov has proved to be much more productive playing for the Bulls than he has for the Red-and-Whites. Expect Shirokov and co. to do as well as, if not better than last season. How can Krasnodar improve? For starters, their owner Sergey Galitsky can stop ranting on social media and focus more on turning his aspirations for FC Krasnodar into reality.
Joel: Roman Shirokov is a talented player and a fairly complicated one at the same time. He is a rebel without a cause that at this stage of his career keeps going from one place to another, looking for some manager that will allow him to dictate the rules and to lead the locker room. Yakin, who is a bit of a stubborn guy as well, was probably not the right person to upset and they ended up by going their separate ways.
As for his new adventure with Krasnodar, it will eventually be good for him. He allegedly has a very good relationship with Oleg Kononov and that fact will certainly help his integration in the team once again.
Andrew: Krasnodar are one of the success stories that gives hope to the broadening of power in Russian football, so I hope the move works out for both parties. The defence was magnificent early in the season with a relatively unheralded lineup, and if Shirokov can find some form and offer a calm head in the centre, there’s no reason why they can’t claim one of the Europa League slots. When I saw him at the Geolog two seasons ago, he seemed to have lost some of the swagger and authority that he used to have, but this really could be his last chance for a crack at European football.
Toke: Roman Shirokov has a lot to prove. Lately has he been making more scandals than creating goals, and he need to prove that he is still one of Russia’s finest midfielders. I liked what Shirokov did for Krasnodar last spring, and if he can keep fit he can definitely help them. When that is said he is a gamble because of his personality and Krasnodar can’t afford players who sees themselves as above the club.
If Yakin is still Spartak coach when the season finish Shirokov will most likely be forced to find a new club, so he has to sell himself this spring.
Stefano: Krasnodar has everything to win the title. Without Europe League, they can concentrate their efforts on RPL to try an unbelievable vamp. Shirokov is a great addition for Kononov’s line-up: he can make the difference with players as Pereyra, Mamaev and Joazinho, that are really technical. I’m sure that we’ll enjoy each game of ‘Biky’ in the second part of the season.
5: Arsenal Tula has only collected 11 points and scored 10 goals, but has showed some nice and inspiring football. Will Alenichev’s team survive in the league?
Saul: They have played well – I still remember that early game when they well down against Zenit but kept on playing great football. I think much will depend on whether they get Artem Dzyuba on loan for half a season.
Aleks: Wouldn’t that be grand? I love cheering on the underdog, and Arsenal Tula has definitely shown us some good football. Unfortunately, it hasn’t been good enough to keep them out of the relegation zone. Despite the support they get from their loyal fans, they have one of the worst records at home. I don’t think they’ll be playing the same carefree, full-on attacking football they were in the fall. I don’t think they’ll be parking the bus all of the time, either. Alenichev has taken notes, and will make the appropriate changes. Let’s hope his players believe in themselves to the same degree that he believes in them.
Joel: Arsenal Tula are one of those rare cases these days that make football lovers believe in the magic of game once again. It is unfair to ask more from that group of players and from Alenichev himself, since playing at RPL is a completely different thing from playing at FNL. Alenichev has learned from the masters (Oleg Romantsev and José Mourinho) and he is passionate about what he does. He is still trying to implement that short passing possession game at Arsenal Tulsa, some sort of Russian tiki-taka, that characterized Beskov and Romantsev’s Spartak back his days, and what he achieved so far is somewhat remarkable, especially if we have in mind the players he has at his disposal.
If Arsenal Tula continue with their slow but solid recovery process, they will certainly manage to escape the nightmare of relegation and the pits of FNL next season.
Andrew: I think they are everybody’s favourite second team with a popular manager and a noble intent, but the numbers don’t lie; it’s all very well entertaining the fans, but if it is survival you target, such a dearth of goals is dangerous. They are clearly missing Evgeniy Savin up front! In all seriousness, the heart says yes, with a miraculous last day escape, but the head unfortunately says no.
Toke: It will be very difficult, but the bottom is still open. With Rostov’s signings of Azmoun, Granat and Dzyuba I expect them to survive.
At the end of the fall it seemed like Tula were finally starting to get used to the Premier League, and their 4-0 demolishing of Amkar was very impressive. Nine of their eleven points came within the last five matches, and if they can keep this form it is definitely possible to survive. When that is said I fear the lack the defensive cynicism that clubs like Ural and Amkar proved last season.
Among Tula’s first five games they have away matches against Kazan, Lokomotiv and CSKA while they face Spartak and Torpedo at home. This is a very tough schedule and they risk being left behind quick.
Stefano: I hope that Arsenal will remain in RPL. They’ve incredible fans and it would be a pity to see them in Pervij Divizion. Although they’ve reinforced the team with Mucha and Khagush, their squad remains poor. They’ll play all the crucial matches away and this could be really tough. In the end, I think that Alenichev needs a miracle to survive in the league.
6: Who will finish in top 5 and bottom 4?
Saul: Zenit, CSKA, Dinamo, Krasnodar, Rubin
Torpedo, Arsenal, Amkar, Rostov
Aleks: Top 5: Zenit, CSKA, Dynamo Moscow, Spartak, Krasnodar
Bottom 4: Arsenal Tula, Amkar, Rostov, Ural
Joel: 1- Zenit, 2- Dynamo, 3- CSKA, 4- Krasnodar, 5- Spartak
13- Torpedo, 14- Rostov, 15- Ural, 16- Amkar
Andrew: It’s impossible to look past Zenit for the title. AVB seems to be in his comfort zone domestically, probably still basking in the glow of that record breaking run at the start of the season. Natcho for top scorer – the man can’t stop, and that winner against Krilya Sovetov in the cup – wow! Inconsistent as they have been, I have a gut feeling Spartak will pick up at the end of the season. Ural never set the world alight but they have some spirit in them, my tip to avoid the drop.
1- Zenit, 2- CSKA, 3- Dynamo, 4- Spartak, 5- Krasnodar
13- Mordovia, 14- Arsenal, 15- Amkar, 16- Rostov
Toke: Zenit, Dinamo, CSKA, Lokomotiv, Krasnodar
Ural, Arsenal, Amkar, Torpedo
Stefano: This is a hard question. I think: Zenit, Krasnodar, Dinamo, CSKA and Spartak in the top 5. Amkar, Arsenal, Torpedo and Ural at the bottom.
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.