RPL Matchday 1 Preview: Kokorin’s Spartak debut, Zenit face newcomers again

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Ahead of the new season’s first matchday, we have picked out the most interesting angles to look out for this weekend.

Kokorin crosses Zenit-Spartak divide with debut against last club Sochi

Despite only playing 10 RPL matches for FC Sochi this spring on loan from Zenit St. Petersburg, Aleksandr Kokorin left quite a mark. The 29-year-old forward finished the season as top goalscorer for the southerners with seven goals - including a hattrick against FC Rostov - and three assists, while also winning the RPL Player of the Month in March. He will now compete with Aleksandr Sobolev, Jordan Larsson and Ezequiel Ponce for a starting place under Domenico Tedesco’s guidance.

The rivalry between Spartak Moscow and Zenit St. Petersburg is one of Russian football’s most intense, so Kokorin will not only have to adapt to a new manager and new teammates, but also to the psychological challenge. In his entire professional career, Kokorin has scored more goals against Spartak than any other club except Rostov, so Spartak are well aware of his capabilities. He will hope to emulate the success of former teammate Artem Dzyuba, who made the switch in the opposite direction five years ago and has subsequently won two RPL titles, two Russian Cups and the Russian Super Cup.

It just so happens that his new club’s first game after his arrival comes against the side he has just starred for - none other than Sochi.

CSKA return to their old temporary home to take on new boys FC Khimki

FC Khimki returned to the top flight after an 11-year absence by the slimmest of margins; although Chertanovo finished level on points with the Moscow region side last season in the FNL, they lost out to Khimki on head-to-head record having lost to them away and drawing at home. While most of their fellow second-tier rivals have spent the last few months recuperating during the extended break due to the coronavirus pandemic, however, Khimki themselves have been busy.

Firstly, they shocked RPL side Ural Ekaterinburg in the Russian Cup semi-finals by beating them comfortably in Ekaterinburg, before pushing Zenit St. Petersburg all the way in the final. Sergey Yuran was then replaced by former Spartak Moscow academy director Dmitry Gunko as manager ahead of the new RPL season. Their home stadium - Khimki Arena - has already seen plenty of top flight football, and not just from its full-time residents.

From 2007 to 2009 FC Khimki played in the Russian Premier Liga, before being relegated back to the second tier. For around a decade, though, Dynamo Moscow played their home matches there while their old Petrovsky Park stadium was demolished and rebuilt into the VTB Arena where they now play. Not only that, but CSKA Moscow also took up residence at the Khimki Arena. The Armymen split their time between there and the Luzhniki while their own VEB Arena was being constructed.

Zenit kick off against newly-promoted side for fourth consecutive season

Rotor Volgograd’s path back to the top table of Russian football has been long and uncertain, but back they are. The 1990s glory days when they knocked Manchester United out of the UEFA Cup and twice finished runners up in the Russian Top League were followed by financial problems and relegations; now they have returned to the top after 16 long years away. With the city’s World Cup venue - the Volgograd Arena - as their home, where they have averaged over 18,000 spectators in the second tier, they have a grand stage to do so.

The bad news is they have the toughest opponents as the celebrate life back in the RPL - Zenit St. Petersburg. The double winners broke records galore last season, including claiming the quickest league title win by matchdays in the Premier Liga era, and have strengthened their defence with the marquee signing of English, European and World club champion Dejan Lovren.

Zenit have made something of a habit of facing newly promoted sides on the opening day of the season. Last summer they opened up with a 2-1 home win over FC Tambov, while for the previous two seasons they travelled all the way out east to start their campaigns. In 2018 they took on Enisey Krasnoyarsk having faced SKA Khabarovsk the year before, as they won both games 2-0. In fact, Zenit haven’t lost any of their last 18 opening day fixtures.

Photos: Spartak Moscow; FC Khimki


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