What to look out for on Matchday 28: Title decider, Dynamo’s Rubin hoodoo in European scrap, Sochi dreams in the balance

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We have picked out the key plots to watch out for on matchday 28 of the Russian Premier Liga.

Title decider in St. Petersburg

There is only one place to start with this weekend’s fixtures; the Gazprom Arena, Zenit vs Lokomotiv, first vs second. The equation is simple for Zenit - beat their rivals, and they will be crowned champions of Russia for the third season in a row. This is a feat that hasn’t been achieved in the top flight since the turn of the millennium, when Spartak Moscow won their sixth consecutive Russian Championship - and ninth in 10 years.

The current top two RPL goalscorers are the same as last season’s; Sardar Azmoun is one short of his tally from last season on 16 goals, while Artem Dzyuba is two behind on 14. As a team Zenit have racked up 65 goals, 15 more than the next highest scorers Spartak, and have an impressive home record. Rubin Kazan are the only team to win in the league in St. Petersburg in over three years, while Zenit have scored at least three goals in all but two of their last 13 home fixtures.

It is the last-chance saloon for Lokomotiv, as they currently stand six points behind the reigning champions, so a defeat will end the race once and for all this campaign. A point will technically keep their distant hopes a live, but it would then require Zenit to implode and lose their last two fixtures, away to relegation-threatened FC Ufa and FC Tambov, with Lokomotiv winning their last two fixtures, both home games against Dynamo and Ural.

If anything it is the visitors who are in slightly better form, after their incredible winning streak since the winter break was extended to 11 in all competitions last weekend with their thumping 5-2 win away to FC Tambov. Eight straight RPL wins has catapulted them into this position to have one more legitimate shot at the RPL title, whereas Zenit have dropped points in three matches during this time.

Europa Conference League scramble intensifies

The tension is ramped up to even higher levels than before when it comes to the battle for the top four and entry to UEFA’s newest competition. Rubin Kazan and Dynamo may be separated by three places - with the former in the last automatic qualification spot - but they are dead level on points. The importance of their meeting in Kazan is therefore obvious.

Rubin arguably have the more comfortable remaining two fixtures after this weekend too; after traveling to face Arsenal Tula next weekend, they finish up with a home fixture against Rotor Volgograd. Both of those sides are still in the relegation places, and Rotor may even have their fate sealed by matchday 30. Denis Makarov will be available after completing a suspension, but Khvicha Kvaratskhelia is still recovering from injury and is unlikely to feature again this campaign.

Dynamo close out this campaign with two Moscow derbies; away to title and Champions league-chasing Lokomotiv, before hosting fellow European challengers CSKA. When it comes to facing Rubin though, they usually have tightly-fought contests. Neither side has scored more than one goal in any of the last seven fixtures between them.

Dynamo only won once in the last eight years, although they did come out on top by a single goal last time they traveled to Kazan. In fact if you look further back, Dynamo have their worst winning percentage against Rubin than against any other RPL side (with the exception of Enisey Krasnoyarsk, whom they have only played twice in the top flight), after winning just four of their 35 clashes. Beginning to reverse that trend here could be huge in their continental aspirations.

Krasnodar revival to derail Sochi dreams?

The trend is definitely upwards for FC Krasnodar under their new manager VIktor Goncharenko; after losing his first match, 1-0 away to Arsenal Tula, he has guided them to a rousing 2-2 draw against leaders Zenit - having been 2-0 up - and now a 1-0 win away to Rubin Kazan. They may be able to sneak into the top half of the table by the end of the season, but Europe is out of reach for them at this stage.

Despite their lowly league position of 10th, they have not stopped entertaining their fans on the pitch as the third-highest scorers with 47 in 27 matches. Unfortunately they have also conceded the most goals of teams outside the relegation playoff zone, with only Zenit being involved in more goals overall than Krasnodar.

They may not be able to change a lot of their own immediate future, but they can have a huge say in the aspirations of their relative neighbours FC Sochi, who are right in the thick of the fight for European places. If Lokomotiv beat Krylia Sovetov Samara to lift the Russian Cup it will free up one more spot in the Conference League for the fifth-placed RPL side, which give an extra boost, but given how tight it is for Sochi with three other teams on the same points, they can’t afford to rely on favours.

They have the precedent of winning in Krasnodar this season, winning their knockout tie in the Russian Cup in February, although they also lost the only league visit last campaign. 

Arsenal gunning for Spartak

Not many teams boast a favourable record against Spartak historically, but curiously Arsenal do - the Tula-based outfit have won more games against the most successful side in Russian football than against any other top-flight side. They have won three of their five home RPL meetings with Spartak, scoring at least two goals in all but one of those. On top of that, they have also beaten CSKA Moscow and FC Krasnodar in recent weeks. History books alone don’t write current results, but it gives a scrap of food for thought to Domenico Tedesco’s men. 

Although these results suggest the sides will be competing on a similar level, their short-term ambitions are quite different. Arsenal have one last shot at securing guaranteed survival from relegation, but the eight-point gap they must make up to Ural Ekaterinburg in the place above them leaves no margin for error in them winning all three remaining fixtures. A more realistic pressing concern will be to at least avoid the automatic drop zone; a five-point cushion means they have a very good chance of avoiding the bottom two.

Spartak, however, have one last shot of their own - but at the other end of the table. Their hopes of a title are admittedly as delicate as Arsenal’s of escaping the bottom four, but with in-form Lokomotiv visiting St. Petersburg this matchday there is a sniff. Failing a championship charge, the Champions League is certainly within reach with just two points to make up on Lokomotiv, so the pressure is firmly on whatever the targets may be for Spartak.


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