23.07.2021

Keys to look out ahead of 2021/22 RPL season

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We have cast our eye ahead to highlight a key point to look out for during the upcoming 2021/22 Russian Premier Liga season for each side.

Zenit St. Petersburg: Can they become the first club to have the RPL top goalscorer three seasons in a row?

The reigning champions Zenit are in the habit of breaking records of late, but there are still some more to claim. Last season they became the first club to claim three consecutive RPL league titles since the turn of the millennium, and they have another hattrick in their sights: having the league’s top goalscorer for the third straight season. 

Rotor Volgograd’s Oleg Veretennikov topped the charts in 1997 and 1998, while Spartak Moscow’s Roman Pavlyuchenko (2006 & 2007) and Welliton (2009 & 2010) also bagged consecutive top-scorer’s titles. Fedor Smolov led the list in 2015/16 and 2016/17, before Sardar Azmoun and Artem Dzyuba won the last two races.

Spartak Moscow: Can Rui Vitoria bring victory in Europe?

Domenico Tedesco’s departure left a void that has been filled by Portuguese manager Rui Vitoria - the fourth foreign nationality to take charge of the club in the last six years after Swiss Murat Yakin, Italian Massimo Carrera and German Tedesco. It’s fair to say his spell has begun well, with a blistering win at the Parimatch Premier Cup in pre-season, where they swept aside Sochi, Rubin and Khimki with ease.

The real challenge will be to see how Vitoria can challenge not just for the RPL title, but whether he can cope with the demands of Champions League football. First up? His former club Benfica in the third qualifying round. It has been over two decades since Spartak have progressed past a group stage - first they have to get there.

Lokomotiv Moscow: What will the Ralf Rangnick effect be?

It was some bombshell to drop before the season at the RZD Arena: renowned coach, sport manager and football business brain Ralf Rangnick has arrived in the RPL as Head of Sports and Development at Lokomotiv Moscow on a three-year consultancy contract. Having headed up the Director of Football roles within the Red Bull group, his knowledge base in almost unparalleled in the modern game.

His role initially caused some confusion, but he has clarified his work will centre around the pathway for developing players through from the academy setup to the second and senior teams, as well as a whole raft of developmental tasks. Will he oversee the emergence of the next superstar this season?

Rubin Kazan: How will the RPL’s biggest transfer (so far) settle?

The Russian rap sensation - and successful football head coach - Leonid Slutsky has boosted his attacking options even further for this campaign with the signing of Sead Haksabanovic for what is reported as the largest transfer fee paid yet for RPL clubs. Lining up alongside Khvicha Kvaratskhelia and Denis Makarov in support of last season’s joint-fourth highest goalscorer Djordje Despotovic, the former West Ham youth product forms part of a potentially thrilling attack.

Haksabanovic is already at match fitness too having assisted four goals in seven Swedish top-flight games this season. There’s no rest for the wicked though, as Rubin begin their campaign in the inaugural UEFA Conference League next week as they combine European and domestic action for the first time since the 2015/16 season.

FC Sochi: What’s stopping Christian Noboa’s Indian Summer?

The Ecuadorian midfielder enjoyed arguably the most impactful season of his career since he lifted league titles with Rubin Kazan in 2008 and 2009. Top scoring for Sochi with an astonishing 12 goals in the league - his highest-ever personal tally - a recall to the Ecuador squad for whom he has already won more caps than any calendar year since 2016, and breaking new ground with Sochi by reaching the UEFA Conference League second qualifying round.

The 36-year-old appears to be unstoppable on his recent form, but what more can he achieve? Sochi are far from a one-man side of course, but there’s no denying the influence he casts over the side when he’s on song. If he avoids injury, he could overtake Alexandru Gatcan (329) as the second-highest foreign appearance holder in Russian top flight history.

CSKA Moscow: Will Berezutsky manage to get his young guns firing?

New permanent head coach Aleksey Berezutsky has a significant task of re-establishing a solid platform this season, but the ingredients are all there for a successful campaign. First of all, for the first time in two decades, there are no European fixtures to juggle alongside a tight RPL challenge. A return to continental action would add a level of pressure that might hinder progress, especially after last season’s disappointing Europa League campaign.

Secondly, CSKA actually boast the youngest squad in the league with an average age of 24 years and eight months. Alan Dzagoev has signed a two-year contract extension to continue an experienced element to the group, and if he can keep his fitness his influence will complement the likes of teenage signing Maksim Mukhin. Berezutsky knows the club inside out of course, is a trusted coach and has an almost blank canvas to begin with.

Dynamo Moscow: Latin American flavour to Dynamo reboot

Sandro Schwarz has steeled his bid to take on the top end of the table with a Latin flavour by bringing in South American experience in defence with Fabian Balbuena and Diego Laxalt, and tying down Guillermo Varela to a permanent deal. With Ivan Ordets and Roman Evgenyev a formidable partnership last season, the options are even deeper for a serious challenge.

Youth will play a big part all over the pitch though. The breakthrough campaigns of Arsen Zakharyan - who became the youngest ever scorer in the UEFA Under-21 European Championships - and Konstantin Tyukavin have catapulted them into first-choice status, with Yaroslav Gladyshev, Vladislav Galkin, Ivan Budachev and Aleksandr Kutitsky all featuring in warm-up matches.

FC Khimki: Can Cherevchenko resurrect Elmir Nabiullin’s career?

Igor Cherevchenko has been a revelation for Khimki since taking over early last season. Had he been in charge from matchday 1 and maintained his average points per game he actually achieved, Khimki would have finished above Lokomotiv Moscow in third. One player who could be key to his plans will be new signing Elmir Nabiullin.

The former Rubin academy product began his senior career at a blazing pace, bursting into the first team as a teenager and earning a big move to Zenit. However, game time was hard to come across in St. Petersburg, and he has since spent the last two seasons at Sochi still struggling to fully establish himself. At the Moscow-region club, he will fit the back-three system Cherevchenko deploys perfectly - if he regains his early form, this could be a crucial element of Khimki’s threat.

 FC Rostov: Will Rostov change system to play two strikers?

Valery Karpin is now the longest-serving manager in the Russian Premier Liga, having taken charge of Rostov back in 2017, and has seen over 70 players come during his time - not including loans. Two key arrivals this summer may indicate a sight shift in attacking set-up - Nikolay Komlichenko has joined on a one-year loan from Dynamo Moscow (Rostov’s opponents on matchday one), while Ali Sowe has made his loan spell from last season a permanent deal.

The pair both stand over 1.9m tall, meaning one of the tallest strike partnerships in the RPL could be unleashed. Karpin has adapted his tactics at Rostov but has more often than not played with a single striker; last season though, they struggled to score freely, averaging 1.2 goals per game. Will a more direct approach lift them up into European contention?

FC Krasnodar: How will the departures be replaced? 

With Kristoffer Olsson confirming his departure to join Belgian club Anderlecht, Krasnodar have now lost another key first-team player from their squad. Marcus Berg, last season’s top scorer in the RPL, has already returned to Sweden, while fellow forwards Evgeny Markov and Ari have joined Arsenal Tula and have been released respectively. With Igor Smolnikov and Ruslan Kambolov also let go and Daniil Utkin loaned out to Akhmat Grozny, the squad is a little bare, although returning loanees Ilya Zhigulev and Uros Spajic will offset the loss somewhat.

Krasnodar suffered an inconsistent campaign which ended with their lowest top-flight finish ever after scoring 52 goals - more than any other club except the top two of Zenit and Spartak - but also letting in 45, more than all other clubs above the bottom four. Vladimir Ilyin has joined after his best personal season with nine league goals and looks set to spearhead the attack - for now.

Akhmat Grozny: Yaya Toure’s coaching career launchpad!

Akhmat Grozny are no strangers to huge names in world football - Ruud Gullit’s short spell as manager was a highlight on the list of names to pass through Chechnya - and now they have a new stellar name in their ranks. Former Barcelona and Manchester City midfield legend Yaya Toure has joined Andrey Talalaev’s coaching staff to add an eclectic flavour to the Akhmat Arena.

Toure has only spent a few months in a coaching role before, spending three months with Ukrainian second-tier side Olimpik Donetsk. How far his vast on-pitch experience will be tapped into remains to be seen, but at least he will have a common link with new signing Mohamed Konate; although the former Khimki, Tambov and Ural striker is a Burkina Faso international, he was born in Toure’s homeland of Cote D’Ivoire.

Ural Ekaterinburg: Breeding ground for young superstars

Ural Ekaterinburg have led a curious path through the last few seasons. They have brushed with both glory and catastrophe, with two Russian Cup Final appearances (both lost to Lokomotiv Moscow, in 2017 and 2019) and an agonising semi-final defeat in their own World Cup stadium last summer, while also flirting dangerously with relegation. Last season they survived comfortable, but with hugely experienced heads either leaving the club or advancing in years, it is the younger generation that will be looked to.

Georgian wonderkid Luka Gagnidze has arrived in Russian football, signing a permanent deal with Dynamo Moscow but immediately being farmed out east to Ural. The 18-year-old midfielder will be in good company, arriving in Ekaterinburg alongside ex-Chertanovo winger Kirill Kolesnichenko. Last season Yuri Matveev placed considerable trust in Arsen Adamov, Gadzhi Gadzhimuradov and on-loan keeper Ilya Pomazun - a long-term understudy to legendary CSKA number 1 Igor Akinfeev - so expect more youthful enterprise.

FC Ufa: RPL’s youngest manager Stukalov stokes up old Veles contacts 

FC Ufa may have struggled to make an impression higher up the table last season - a last-day relegation battle against Arsenal Tula confirmed their top-flight status - they only managed to be in that position thanks to the energetic momentum provided by the RPL’s youngest head coach: Aleksey Stukalov. The 37-year-old arrived with Ufa in the relegation zone, but he masterminded a remarkable turnaround in form by winning three (including an astonishing 3-0 victory away to runners up Spartak), drawing two (including against champions Zenit) and losing just once.

The former Veles Moscow boss has now brought in two youngsters from his exciting former side in a bid to boost their chances. Centre-back Erving Bokata and Ruslan Fishchenko have been reunited with their former manager in Bashkortostan, and bring with them an understanding of how Stukalov works. If they can replicate the form he instilled at the end of last season, Ufa could be in very good shape come winter.

Arsenal Tula: Will Parfenov look to rekindle Russian Cup flame?

Dmitry Parfenov has flirted with Russian Cup glory more than once. Before arriving in Tula, he guided Ural to an ill-fated Russian Cup Final in 2019, and the following year to a home semi-final against then-second tier side Khimki after the pandemic-sparked season break, only to be completely outplayed in a 3-0 defeat. 

Before Ekaterinburg though, he achieved the seemingly impossible by leading FC Tosno to lift the only major trophy of their short-lived existence - they had only been founded in 2013, and weeks after their Cup win the club was dissolved. In that squad was a certain Evgeny Markov; his partnership with now-CSKA forward Anton Zabolotny caught the imagination, earning Markov a move to Dynamo Moscow and Zabaolotny a move to Zenit in the winter, before the Cup success itself. Will their link-up lead to another fairytale journey?

Krylia Sovetov Samara: Back in the big time, will record-breaker Sergeev smash more boundaries?

Calling Krylia Sovetov Samara new boys is not telling the whole story; while it is true of course they have been promoted back to the top flight, they are no strangers to the Russian Premier Liga, having spent more time there than all but five clubs - even more than reigning champions Zenit.

One man who caught the headlines on their emphatic return was Ivan Sergeev, who smashed the FNL goalscoring record to bag a scarcely believable 40 goals last season in the second tier. The former Tambov and Torpedo Moscow forward has also signed a contract extension, and given how unusually settled the squad is for a newly promoted side, the platform is set to truly test Sergeev’s goalscoring ability.

FC Nizhny Novgorod: Can Aleksandr Kerzhakov step out of his legendary playing career’s shadow?

While Krylia are no strangers, Nizhny Novgorod really are breaking new ground as they make their bow in the top tier. Two seasons ago they almost made it, but were beaten by Krylia themselves in the FNL promotion playoffs. The city did have an RPL side as recently as seven years ago, but Volga have since been dissolved.

Leading the bold charge will be Aleksandr Kerzhakov in the dugout. As a striker, his ruthless streak was legendary, leaving him with titles galore, the record for goals scored for the Russian national team (30, now tied with Artem Dzyuba) and second place in the all-time Russian championship list behind Oleg Veretennikov. His coaching career has been spent mostly nurturing the youth of Zenit and Russia age-group teams; Tom Tomsk offered him his first head coach role last September, but now the step-up is real.

Photo: Aleksandr Stupnikov / Spartak Moscow


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