Matchday 16 Preview: Return of the Mak, Berezutsky blue-sky thinking

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We have looked ahead to this weekend’s matchday 16 fixtures in the Russian Premier Liga to bring you the key areas to look out for.

Ural vs Sochi: Third time’s a charm for Sochi?

Ural Ekaterinburg managed to escape the unwanted label of the lowest ever scorers at the halfway stage of a 16-team RPL season by the skin of their teeth last weekend as teenager Yuri Zheleznov bagged his first goal for the club in a creditable 1-1 draw away to Krylia Sovetov. For a few hours at least, they even managed to lift themselves off the foot of the table, only for Khimki to pull off a shock draw of their own away to CSKA Moscow and edge back above them.

Igor Shalimov has not managed to solve the age-old problem of scoring, with that the team’s first goal in five matches, but has overseen a tight defence that even the most powerful visitors have struggled with - both Zenit themselves and Lokomotiv have failed to score in Ekaterinburg visits in recent trips out east. In Mateo Cassierra though, his men face one of the most in-foirm strikers in the league

Sochi’s Colombian frontman is the undoubted spearhead of a dangerous outfit that also welcomes back Marko Dugandzic to match readiness. However, there is a thorn in Sochi’s side - their brief, but poor, record in Ekaterinburg. They have lost every competitive match there to date, including the two top-flight clashes at the Ekaterinburg Arena. 

The defeat at home to Rubin Kazan showed some tiny cracks starting to emerge in their aura of momentum, and there will be no quarter shown at the basement battlers. Since the start of this season, results on the road of Vladimir Fedotov’s men have alternated from loss to victory up to a narrow 2-1 win at Arsenal Tula last time away - a mere statistical quirk?

Rubin vs Dynamo: Return of the Mak

The last few months have been quite a rollercoaster for Rubin Kazan. Their season ended in impressive fashion as they came within a whisker of an unlikely Champions League spot before earning a place in the inaugural Europa Conference League. Khvicha Kvaratskhelia and Denis Makarov staked their claims as the most thrilling winger partnership in the RPL, so it came as little surprise when suitors came knocking for their services.

Makarov made the move to Dynamo in the summer before his now former teammates crashed out of Europe, and now returns to the launchpad for his top-flight career. Rubin have found it tough to replicate their blistering consistency of last term, but are boosted somewhat by the return of Kvaratskhelia, and their dramatic win in Sochi last weekend. Missing Oliver Abildgaard is a blow, but with Anders Dreyer’s magic boots firing there is plenty of danger to be caused.

Dynamo routed Arsenal Tula last time out to continue their own winning run, Makarov supplying the ammunition for Arsen Zakharyan’s stunning fifth goal. He hasn’t quite hit the heights of his breakout campaign in 2020/21 yet with just one goal and two assists in 11 appearances for his new side, but perhaps a return to the pitch where he dazzled Zenit with the best goal of last season will rekindle his fire.

Dynamo can’t afford to let Zenit any more breathing space at the top or they risk falling out of the title race. Admittedly a four-point gap doesn’t look huge in itself, but when you are chasing the champions who’ve scored for fun once again, it starts to look bigger. Strolling past a Leonid Slutsky side is far easier said than done though - will Denis be a menace to the Kazan Street Kids?

CSKA vs Zenit: Blue-sky thinking essential for Berezutsky

Zenit are not unbeatable - Sochi and Arsenal Tula have already proven that this RPL campaign - but it takes a considerable level of planning and performance to pull it off (or a Kings Kangwa wondergoal). Aleksey Berezutsky has a mighty task on his hands to pick up a first win in four games, and if he fails he risks his patient form evaporating into a mid-table meander. If relegation-zone Khimki can hold them to a goalless draw, they might struggle to contain a rampant Zenit.

Admittedly the cause was not helped by Bruno Fuchs getting sent off after just 15 minutes of his first start for the club. The Brazilian centre-back has struggled enormously to get his Russian Premier Liga career off the ground after suffering unfortunate injuries; on the day, however, his lapse of timing was indicative of CSKA’s tepid form in front of goal. In fact, they have scored fewer goals than anyone else in the top half of the table.

With Magomed Ozdoev edging his way back to fitness Zenit are only getting stronger. They rounded up the first half of the season with 39 goals scored to their name, one short of the highest total ever scored at the halfway stage, and more than half the sides in the RPL over the whole of last season.

Then there is the head-to-head record; Zenit have beaten CSKA in five of the last six meetings, and only lost one of the last 13 competitive clashes overall. With Artem Dzyuba fresh off his fifth RPL hattrick last weekend it seems obvious to focus attentions on stopping the league’s all-time top goalscorer, but perhaps Berezutsky’s main focus ought to be on attacking a defence that has kept just two clean sheets all season. Simple, right?

Arsenal vs Lokomotiv: Gisdol redemption in Tula?

Arsenal were well and truly hammered last weekend as Dynamo blew them away 5-1 to make it three defeats from four to keep them firmly in the relegation playoff zone. It will take quite some feat of character to overcome the disappointment in the capital and get back on track.

Despite the poor run of results, at home they still maintain an unusual record that will make Lokomotiv think twice about being able to simply turn up to claim all three points. Tula has hosted plenty of major shocks in recent months, not least the Zenit win in October, with only one defeat at home since July. They’ve also only won once in the last six home games, so in theory this game could be in the balance.

Arsenal are not the only ones who need to pick themselves up though. A fairly disappointing display at home to Lazio has left their hopes of European football in the spring hanging by a very delicate thread, while the home defeat to Akhmat Grozny last weekend saw them drop to fourth, with a further four sides within three points in the table. Markus Gisdol has a task on his hands to restore the pride and momentum.

At least six senior players will be unavailable through injury and suspension too. Like Arsenal at home, Lokomotiv have drawn a lot of recent away matches - six of the last seven on the road to be precise - the question is, will a point be enough to satisfy Gisdol as he charts a course to calmer waters?


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