What To Expect From the Russian Clubs in the European Group Stages

With the Champions League and Europa League group stages about to begin, it is time to take a closer look at the Russian teams competing in Europe. Over the years, the Russian coefficient has risen steadily, and in August 2016, Russia overtook Portugal in the UEFA rankings for club competitions, making it the sixth strongest league in Europe, which means Russia will have three teams in the Champions League next season, instead of only two.

This season Russia have four teams competing in the European group stages: Spartak Moscow directly qualified for the Champions League group stage as champions, whilst Lokomotiv Moscow qualified directly into the Europa League group stage via their cup win. CSKA Moscow and Zenit St. Petersburg furthermore qualified respectively for the Champions League and Europa League through the qualification rounds, while FC Krasnodar fell short in the play-off round of the Europa League, losing to Red Star Belgrade on the away-goal rule.

UEFA Champions League: Spartak Moscow and CSKA Moscow

Group E:

Spartak Moscow
Sevilla
Liverpool
Maribor

Spartak’s brilliant championship-winning season is very far away suddenly, but the aftermath of it is not: a Champions League spot. Although Spartak have struggled on the pitch this season, they find themselves in a very equal group, where they should fancy their chances. Undoubtedly Liverpool and Sevilla will take the spotlight in this group, especially the former, and leave Spartak as the dark horses of the group, whilst Maribor should have no realistic chance of a top-two finish.

Nevertheless, it looks difficult for Spartak, and they need to find last season’s formula sooner rather than later to advance. Last season the team had some maturity to it, and they could close out difficult games. This season, the team has looked shaky from the beginning, and more worryingly, they have lost all their games against the other top Russian teams. They have already faced Zenit, CSKA and Lokomotiv, and emerged with three embarrassing defeats, including a 5-1 trashing in St. Petersburg to fierce rivals Zenit.

Amongst all this negativity, there has been good news for Spartak. They have managed to keep all their key players from last season, most notable Quincy Promes, and have even strengthened the squad with Chelsea loanee Mario Pašalić and deadline day signing Pedro Rocha from Grêmio amongst others.

Spartak have been lucky with their group. Liverpool and Sevilla are good European teams, but no current heavyweights, and Maribor are straight up minnows. Liverpool should be the favorites to win this group since their squad is the strongest, while Sevilla are favourites for the second-place spot. With that said, neither team should underestimate Spartak, especially if Carrera finds his championship-winning formula again. Also, Spartak will have immense support at the Otkritie Arena, where over 40.000 fans will give them lots of help.

Nevertheless, as a starting point, Spartak should be expected to take 3rd place. Finishing above that would be a nice surprise, whilst finishing below would be a major disappointment.

RFN Prediction: 3rd

Group A:

Benfica
Manchester United
Basel
CSKA Moscow

CSKA Moscow in the Champions League have been nothing short of disastrous over the last few seasons, and unfortunately, they look more likely than not to repeat themselves this season. Manchester United are without doubt the clear favorites to finish top of Group A, and Portuguese champions Benfica look like a team who will probably end up snatching second place, and qualification into the Round of 16. Basel being drawn from pot three has really helped CSKA, since they could have ended up with significantly tougher opposition, and therefore another predicted 4th place finish. However, this season finishing bottom would be considered a bigger disappointment than in recent years.

CSKA’s defence is one year closer to retirement, and their attack still looks incredibly weak. Their transfer business has been terrible as usual. However, this is their first ever season in the Champions League with Viktor Goncharenko in charge. So far he has done well, with four wins from four and a 6-0 goal difference record from the qualifying rounds, breaking Akinfeev’s awful streak of conceding in 40 Champions League games in a row. Although the group stage is a completely different thing, there is hope that he can be the change CSKA has desperately needed in Europe.

If CSKA want to reach the Round of 16, they need to be ready from the beginning. They begin with a crucial fixture at the Estadio Da Luz, where Benfica await. Get something from that, and they will fancy their chances at the VEB Arena against Manchester United on matchday two. But, both Manchester United and Benfica look too strong for the current CSKA, although Basel look beatable. CSKA should, like Spartak, aim for at least third. Though finishing above isn’t out of the picture, it’s hard to imagine ultimate group stage chokers CSKA doing it.

RFN prediction: 3rd

UEFA Europa League: Zenit St. Petersburg and Lokomotiv Moscow

Group L

Zenit St. Petersburg
Real Sociedad
Rosenborg
Vardar

Another Europa League campaign it is for Zenit, which in itself is a massive disappointment for Russia’s most powerful club. A sign of intent has been shown by Zenit this season, compared to last season. Zenit have hired Roberto Mancini as head coach, and spent 85 million euros on new players, including names like Leandro Paredes, Sebastian Driussi and Emanuel Mammana. One big name who has left Zenit is last season’s Europa League top scorer Giuliano, who moved to Fenerbahce last month.

This group should, like last season, end up seeing Zenit take top spot. Although Real Sociedad makes this group a lot harder than last season, Rosenborg and especially Vardar should be outclassed by Zenit. The games against the Spaniards will by no means be easy, but should see Zenit win at least the home game, and be capable of producing a result, if needed, on matchday six in San Sebastián.

Zenit started this season amazingly, but have recently slowed down a bit. They have drawn their last two games 0-0 against beatable opponents FC Rostov and Dinamo Moscow, and have shown that they are not at 100% yet, which isn’t surprising considering the turnover in the squad this summer.

RFN prediction: 1st

Group F:

FC Copenhagen
Lokomotiv Moscow
Sheriff Tiraspol
Fastav Zlin

Lokomotiv Moscow are back in Europe. This season they look solid, and Yuri Semin has slowly, but steadily, left his mark on the squad. They have been extremely lucky with their Europa League group, where they are solid favorites to win the group. They have made some good signings over the summer, and haven’t lost any key players. The permanent signings of Igor Denisov and Solomon Kvirkvelia are key, whilst Maciej Rybus and Eder look like players who have enough quality to lift the level of the squad.

FC Copenhagen look good on paper, but the Danes are a completely different team compared to last season. Important players have left, and they have not found a solution yet. Overall Copenhagen going up against a team of Lokomotiv’s quality at this point, which they are going to do on matchday one, can only end with a Lokomotiv win. A win in Denmark on matchday one should set the tone, and from there on they can move towards the full house, winning every single game. Sheriff and Zlin should be no match, and it is tough even seeing an improved version of Copenhagen getting anything from Moscow in November.

RFN prediction: 1st

 

Just like last season, Zenit are Russia’s best hope. Their quality on and off the pitch is immense, and they have incredible squad depth. Mancini coming in has already revolutionized things. On top of that, the Europa League looks weaker than last season. Of course, the competition will look different once we get the teams over from the Champions League in December, but as things stand, there aren’t many bigger favorites than Zenit.

Spartak, CSKA and Lokomotiv would all have around the same amount of firepower in the Europa League. Both CSKA and Spartak should end up in Europe’s second-tier competition after Christmas, and Lokomotiv should win their group, or at least make it through comfortably. All three teams have the potential to reach the quarter-finals, give or take some luck with the draw.

 

Lukas Müller

Author: Lukas Müller

I caught up with Russian Football during the 2007-08 season. Zenit and the Russian National Team’s performances made me stick around. I am a Zenit-supporter and run the club’s Danish website dk.fc-zenit.ru and official Nordic Twitter account. I also do video-stuff at Denmark’s biggest club Brøndby IF. 18 y/o.

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