RPL restart: Key points in the championship picture

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Who’s in the title race, who’s fighting for European places, and who’s fighting relegation.

Title race

Champions for the last two seasons, Zenit are still leading the way. The Blue-White-Sky Blues started the season with four consecutive wins, never falling out of the top three. Thanks to a three-game winning streak at the end of 2020, they broke four points clear of CSKA in second place. The chasing pack is tight: every team from second down to eleventh is separated by no more than two points.

The first team to edge ahead of Zenit this season was Spartak after their matchday six victory over Arsenal Tula, and the Red-Whites topped the table for the first time since the 2016/17 championship-winning season. On the next matchday, the interim leaders were Sochi, who went unbeaten through the first seven games. At the same time, Spartak lost the Moscow derby to CSKA, and Zenit went back to the top of the table after beating Arsenal.

At the next attempt Spartak gained a foothold again after matchday 12, when Domenico Tedesco’s men beat FC Krasnodar as Zenit lost to Rubin Kazan. Spartak’s lead again lasted one matchday though, when the Muscovites lost to Rostov and were overtaken by CSKA, who beat Rotor Volgograd. The Armymen even held the lead at the halfway stage, and in four out of five such cases they went on to win the title, the exception being the 2011/12 transitional season.

However, after a run of four matches without a win CSKA fell behind Zenit, but thanks to their matchday 19 win away to Rostov, they went into the winter break in the Champions League places, a competition they haven’t played in since 2018. From the 2021/22 season, only two RPL teams will enter UEFA’s premiere tournament.

European competitions qualification

At the end of the season, Russia will be represented in European competitions by five clubs: either the top four in the league and the Russian Cup winners, or the top five RPL finishers if one of the top four wins the Cup. Now the third and fourth-placed teams will advance to the inaugural UEFA Europa Conference League. Spartak and Sochi currently occupy these positions, with Rostov just one point behind Sochi, Dynamo and Krasnodar also close just three points off the top four, while Lokomotiv and Rubin sit a further two points back.

Sochi, Dynamo and Lokomotiv can all reach Europe through the Russian Cup having all made it to the quarter-finals. Vladimir Fedotov's side beat Krasnodar, Dynamo won the derby against Spartak, and Lokomotiv beat Tambov. Rostov were eliminated from the tournament after losing to Akhmat, and Rubin were knocked out in the elite round.

Akhmat and Khimki round up the European contenders. Akhmat are seven points behind the top four, with Khimki one further back. Andrey Talalaev's team returned to the league after an 11-year absence as outsiders with no wins in the opening eight matchdays. After the appointment of Igor Cherevchenko, Khimki did not just get out of the relegation zone, but showed some of the best form in the league, second only to Zenit in points accumulated since then. This work earned the coach the RPL Manager of the Month awards in November and December.

Relegation battle

Ufa and Tambov prop up the table on 13 points, one behind Arsenal. At the same time, the gap to Ural Ekaterinburg - currently in the last position outside the relegation playoff zone - is still four points for Rotor.

After finishing ninth last season, Ufa started the current campaign unsuccessfully with one win in ten matchdays, and the resignation of Vadim Evseev. After the arrival of Rashid Rakhimov, Ufa picked up one point in his first five games, before beating Tambov and Rostov. After subsequent defeats to Rotor and Krasnodar, however, they were back in 15th place. Tambov started with three wins in 11 matches, but in the next eight matches before the winter break, they managed only two points and finished 2020 rock bottom.

Arsenal picked up the same points over that period, and changed the head coach as Sergey Podpaly was replaced by Dmitry Parfenov. But in the first match after the winter break, the Gunners knocked out the current holders Zenit St. Petersburg from the Russian Cup. Parfenov's previous teams have tasted success in the Cup: in 2018 Tosno lifted the trophy, and in 2019 Ural reached the final.

Rotor have spent most of the season in the automatic relegation zone, and only managed their first win on matchday 12. However, before the winter break, they won two home matches in a row against direct competitors - Ufa and Arsenal - and rose to 13th position.

Race for individual honours

After 19 matchdays, the goalscoring race is led by Sardar Azmoun and Artem Dzyuba. Last season, both Zenit players scored 17 goals and were recognized as the league's top scorers. Now both forwards have 11 goals, and their closest pursuer is Marcus Berg two behind. Following them on eight goals are Ezequiel Ponce, Nikola Vlasic, Jordan Larsson and Christian Noboa. The Ecuadorian veteran was top scorer at the beginning of the season, having scored seven of his eight goals in the first nine games.

In the race for most assists, five players are tied on five assists each: Zelimkhan Bakaev, Sebastian Szymanski, Nikola Vlasic, Timofey Margasov and Douglas Santos. In the list of the best goalkeepers, there is also a struggle for the first place: Sergey Pesyakov, Marinato Guilherme and Anton Shunin have seven clean sheets each. Pesyakov only caught up with his opponents, who have been leading since the beginning of the season, after matchday 18. Mikhail Kerzhakov, Soslan Dzhanaev and Igor Akinfeev are one further back on six clean sheets.

Photo: Sergey Plotnikov/RPL


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