What to look out for on Matchday 26: Red-White Redemption, Runaway Lokomotiv freight train, Goncharenko home debut in modern classic

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We have picked out the key storylines to watch out for on Matchday 26 of the Russian Premier Liga.

Runaway Lokomotiv freight train to smash winning run?

The turnaround in form for Lokomotiv Moscow has been remarkable, and it seems there is little that opponents can do to derail their impressive momentum. Fedor Smolov’s opportunistic free-kick to seal a 2-0 win over Spartak was a microcosm of the adventurous confidence of Marko Nikolic’s side of late, spotting a gap to the side of the defensive wall for his fifth goal in five competitive games since returning from injury.

The faith in youth has paid handsome dividends for the Railroaders with eight players aged 22 or under getting minutes this season so far. Maksim Mukhin has emerged as a genuine contender for a first-team place, even earning a senior international call-up, while 20-year-old Aleksandr Silyanov was thrown in at the deep end in the Spartak win for his debut and performed confidently.

Their winning streak is now eight matches in all competitions, and shows no sign of abating. From floundering in mid-table just before the break, they are already on the verge of Champions League qualification. Rostov’s path has been in a different trajectory of late, although they have taken points off high-flying Sochi and Zenit, as well as winning 4-0 in their last away match and remaining unbeaten in their last two competitive away games against Lokomotiv.

One spark that gives the visitors hope is that manager Valery Karpin - now the RPL’s longest-serving head coach after being in charge of Rostov for over three years - has a good record against Lokomotiv. In fact, he has won more games against them than any other side with the exception of Akhmat Grozny.

Gocharenko’s home debut in modern classic rivalry

Unfortunately for Viktor Goncharenko, he didn’t manage to get off to a winning start in his new role as head coach of FC Krasnodar last weekend they lost 1-0 away to Arsenal Tula. Not to worry, the next fixture is at home… to the reigning champions Zenit St. Petersburg. The former CSKA Moscow boss has faced Zenit 15 times in his managerial career, and only managed one win - the lowest tally he has against any side still in the RPL.

A return to Europe looks out of reach with five games to go. Twelve points separate the Bulls from Gocharenko’s former side, fourth-placed CSKA, who currently occupy the last Europa Conference League spot. In that sense there is little pressure on the Belarusian in the run-in.

However, recent history has thrown up some epic encounters between these two sides. Last season when they met down south, Zenit sealed the RPL title in record time - also on matchday 26 - having twice been pegged back by Daniil Utkin strikes before running out 4-2 winners. The season before went down as one of the greatest matches in RPL history. 

This time the title was very much still up for grabs by Matchday 24, and Krasnodar themselves were still very much in contention. Again, Zenit took the lead twice, again Krasnodar drew level both times, the second into added time with plenty added on for stoppages. In the fifth minute added on, however, Artem Dzyuba smashed home what proved to be the crucial goal not only in the game, but in the title race itself.

Can Sochi salvage pride against CSKA?

From the start of December, Sochi embarked on an impressive run of four consecutive league wins, including victories over Moscow giants Spartak and Dynamo, catapulting them up into third place after Matchday 20. In fact, they even went a further game without conceding after holding Rostov to a goalless draw at the start of March. However, since then they have struggled to keep up with the frantic pace of European challengers. 

Not only have they only won once in the last five league games - losing three of the last four - but they were also knocked out of the Russian Cup quarter-finals by Lokomotiv Moscow. Even though they have lost their phenomenal unbeaten home run, which lasted 13 months, they are within touch of Europe still; six points separate them, and this week’s opponents CSKA in fourth. They may not even need to overhaul them though - if Lokomotiv or CSKA win the Russian Cup, their place in UEFA’s new competition will go to the fifth-placed RPL team, currently Rubin Kazan only three points ahead.

CSKA have played Sochi three times in the latter’s brief existence, unbeaten in all of them and winning on the only league visit to the Fisht Olympic Stadium. The tension is building though, with anywhere from unlikely title winners to missing out on Europe altogether possible season denouements for the Armymen.

Despite shipping five goals in their last two matches under Goncharenko, CSKA still boast the RPL’s second-best defensive record. Relying on the defence alone will be tricky against one of the most prolific sides at home this season, but with the form that Chidera Ejuke showed last week against Rotor Volgograd, they may not have to.

RPL young guns clash as Tedesco seeks redemption

There is no question that the title race has tipped in Zenit St. Petersburg’s favour with five games to go after last weekend’s results. Spartak’s defeat to Lokomotiv in the Moscow derby was a blow to the Red-White hopes of challenging the reigning champions. Seven points now separate Zenit from second-placed Spartak, but the season is far from over for Domenico Tedesco; his side are still in the driving seat for Champions League places.

By welcoming AlekseyStukalov to the Otkritie Arena, his first chance to get back on track comes in a clash between the two youngest head coaches in the RPL. At just 35 years of age, Tedesco is the youngest in the league - two players in his squad, Artem Rebrov and Andrey Eshchenko, are two years older than him - while new Ufa boss Stukalov is only two years older. Despite the latter’s youth, he already has over 16 years’ coaching experience from youth level through to the top flight.

After the dream debut 3-0 home win against Akhmat Grozny last time out though, the honeymoon period will be seriously tested. Even though his new charges have only lost three of their last 12 meetings with the most successful side in Russian Premier Liga history, a trip to the capital to face a side that have scored more than two goals per home game is a daunting one.

The RPL’s second-highest scorers drew a blank in front of goal for the first time in five RPL matches last weekend at the RZD Arena though, having scored 16 in the previous four. Tedesco is also missing Ayrton Lucas, captain Georgiy Dzhikia and joint-top scorer Aleksandr Sobolev through suspension. 


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