Matchday 18 Preview: Early Title decider, Krylia & Rubin’s sliding doors, Rostov/Ural culture clash

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We have looked ahead to the last round of Russian Premier Liga fixtures ahead of the winter break to bring you the key points to look out for.

Krylia vs Rubin: Sliding Doors clash for off-form rivals

If there’s one thing Krylia Sovetov Samara cannot be accused of this season, it is quietly going about their business. The newly-promoted side gave a big hint to how they’d apply themselves to life back in the top flight with their record-breaking campaign in the FNL last season, and they’ve shown an entire spectrum of form since. Three defeats on the bounce to start morphed into four home wins in a row and taking the lead away to Zenit and CSKA.

Which path their season will take in the spring could well hang on this fixture. Such is the claustrophobic nature of the RPL table that eight teams from third place to 10th are separated by just six points, meaning Krylia could mathematically head into hibernation either on the fringes of the European places, or be sucked down into the bottom half. The form book is not on their side with just one goal and no wins from their last three league games - but they have shown they rarely pay attention to the script.

Rubin are fighting their own battles after two straight defeats following a frustrating 2-1 loss to Nizhny Novgorod last weekend in which they huffed and puffed but simply couldn’t blow Aleksandr Kerzhakov’s door down. Ten goals conceded in the last four RPL games is a major concern, as is only one away win since July, but the results alone don’t tell the whole picture.

Djordje Despotovic’s absence has been keenly felt, so his return to action will be crucial, but even without him they haven’t sat back. Anders Dreyer’s electric form has led the way with a goal in each of the last three games - a stunning win away to fellow Europa Conference League qualifiers Sochi and two agonising but enterprising defeats to Dynamo and Nizhny Novgorod - and his eye for goal will be a key factor. Win, and they leapfrog Krylia back into contention; lose, and relegation scrappers will be licking their lips.

Dynamo vs Zenit: Early title decider?

Football is often full of regrets and knife-edge moments that spark euphoria or agony; when Dynamo look back at what has so far been one of their most powerful seasons in recent memory, this fixture is guaranteed to stick long in the memory, whatever the result. The equation is simple - win, and they will go into the winter break top of the table. Lose, and the gap extends to five points with 12 games left.

The consistent faith in youth has paid off handsomely to spur them to this position. Fresh from being voted Young Player of the Year by the Russian Football Union, Arsen Zakharyan has pulled the strings in midfield all year with seven goals and 11 assists in 27 RPL games. Such has been his meteoric rise, that it is almost pointless trying to shield him from expectation despite his tender teenage years. Zenit must find a way to control him at all costs if they want to keep their stranglehold on the league table summit.

And what a stranglehold they have. It is almost impossible to understate the domestic dominance Zenit have enjoyed in the last three years - three consecutive titles, record goal tallies, record points tallies - but perhaps the most enduring statistic is the fact they have been in first place for 55 out of the last 63 weeks. If anyone can turn up at the VTB Arena with confidence, it is Sergey Semak’s men, and not only in light of their tub-thumping 3-3 draw against the European champions Chelsea in midweek.

There is another way entirely to look at the seismic importance of this match though. The very fact that it is so crucial shows how behind the veneer of success is a human element to their form. Only Sochi from the current top-six sides have conceded more goals this campaign, and although they have only lost twice away from home this calendar year, they have also only won twice in the last six. The last sides Zenit lost to before 2021? Rubin Kazan and Dynamo Moscow…

Sochi vs Spartak: Will the real Sochi and Spartak please stand up? 

A side that didn’t even exist five years ago can be forgiven for finding its feet in the top flight, but Sochi have no patience for sympathy - they shot to the top faster than the blink of an eye, and expect results against almost anyone at home. Mateo Cassierra has been a revelation up front behind only Gamid Agalarov and Artem Dzyuba in the RPL goalscoring charts, and they sit very comfortably in the European places again, so any suggestion of inexperience as a mitigating factor is wasted.

But how comfortable actually are Sochi? An enviable home record that had seen them lose just once in 18 months in their Fisht Central Stadium has started falling apart with three defeats in the last five at home, including the last two in a row. Having finished just four points off what would have been an incredible Champions League qualification last season, defeat this weekend would see them 10 points off the top-two pace already.

Spartak have plenty of questions over consistency of their own to answer. There is no question they have struggled to replicate a fraction of the devastating threat they showed last season when they dramatically snatched the runners up spot on the last day. Only six wins from the first 17 league games - just one more than newly-promoted Nizhny Novgorod - is simply not enough to match the demands of such an iconic club. 

Then again, Rui Vitoria clearly has ample to work with when one looks at the full-blooded Europa League group stage campaign. Incredible home and away wins over former Serie A champions Napoli were heart-stopping classics. The roaring late derby comeback to draw 2-2 against Dynamo stirred the passions. The question is, which Spartak - and Sochi - is going to show up this weekend?

Rostov vs Ural: Extreme culture clash

Rostov have been through many guises in the last decade; a steady, disciplined ship under the veteran guidance of Kurban Berdyev, changing tactical systems during Valery Karpin’s reign, and now an apparent disregard for simple scorelines. After 17 matches, Rostov have seen 60 goals scored and conceded combined - only Zenit matches have seen more goals overall. Only two of their last 10 RPL matches have seen fewer than three goals. In fact, their last goalless draw came way back in March.

For all their entertainment, they remain unable to shake off the lurking relegation zone. Thanks largely to the second-worst defensive record in the league with 31 goals conceded, they rest just two points off the automatic drop zone. Much as Rostov fans can’t complain about getting their money’s worth, they’d surely prefer to stay safely in the RPL.

Ural are about the polar opposite to Rostov. Games involving the easternmost RPL side have seen by far the fewest overall goals, with just 25 in total for and against them. The most striking statistic is a pitiful eight goals scored - and that has been boosted by a relative scoring spree of three goals in the last three matches. 

What they do have is an unrelenting defiance, even in the face of unfavourable odds. It stands to reason when your top scorer has just two goals that defence first would be the chosen approach, and the backline have performed it admirably. Injuries have forced a few innovative team selections and rotations, but the emergence of Russia age group internationals Ivan Kuzmichev and Arsen Adamov has been key. Will their resilience hold out against the southern entertainers - or will they pull another shock out of the bag by leapfrogging Rostov?

Photo: Vyacheslav Evdokimov / Zenit St. Petersburg


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