Matchday 20 Preview: Zenit’s unlikely bogey team, Capital Gains, Southern comfort

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We have looked ahead to the key storylines to watch out for in the Russian Premier Liga on Matchday 20.

Zenit St. Petersburg vs Ufa: Champions’ unlikely bogey team strike again?

The power of recruitment was on full display last weekend as the RPL resumed action after the winter break. Sardar Azmoun’s expedited departure to Bayer Leverkusen was immediately counteracted by the arrivals of Ivan Sergeev and Yuri Alberto, both of whom were crucial in securing a dramatic comeback win over Rubin Kazan to return to the top of the table with their first goals for the club.

What the game did expose, however, was an unusual Achilles heel for Sergey Semak’s side this season. For all their undeniable strength in depth to call upon, they have only managed to keep one clean sheet at home season, and with Yaroslav Rakitsky leaving the club and Dejan Lovren still recovering from injury, the defence is an area visiting teams know they can target. 

Usually Ufa would also be armed with the league’s top goalscorer in Gamid Agalarov, but his suspension means he will miss out. Given that nobody else in Aleksey Stukalov’s squad has managed more than two goals all campaign, it is hard to see where the goals will come from for the visitors. They do have another silent weapon in their arsenal though; their unusual stranglehold over their powerful rivals.

Zenit have failed to score against Ufa in two of the last four clashes, and have won just once in the last five meetings overall. Granted, the last time they welcomed Ufa to the Gazprom Arena they were rampant as they smashed their way to a 6-0 win, but given the uncertainty in their backline, the pressure being applied by Dynamo Moscow in second and the weight of expectation, perhaps this fixture isn’t a foregone conclusion.

Dynamo Moscow vs Spartak Moscow: Capital gains 2.0

Both sides faced opponents in the Moscow Region last weekend, as Dynamo beat Khimki 3-0 away from home in a comfortable day’s work that took them top of the table for a few hours. The dramatic return of Fedor Smolov already looks a sound short-term investment as the season rapidly falls into focus, after the Blue-Whites’ former youth product scored on his debut before making it two in two games back in the midweek Russian Cup win over Nizhny Novgorod.

Now comes the real grudge match. The history between the two sides needs little introduction, but the recent trend between the pair gives little clue as to who will come out on top this time round. Romping to a comfortable win is a great start. Smolov hitting the ground running is even better. The question is, will the pressure of derby day be a boost or a hindrance? After all, they haven’t beaten Spartak in their last seven league meetings.

Losing another Moscow clash isn’t ideal preparation on Spartak’s part though. The 2-0 loss at home to CSKA was a damaging blow to their confidence and momentum, although Paolo Vanoli did oversee an emphatic 6-1 thrashing of Kuban in midweek to get his own account up and running. Shamar Nicholson became the first Spartak player to score a hattrick at the Otkritie Bank Arena, and even Jordan Larsson shook off his indifferent form this season with a stunning strike off the bench.

There is no question the Red-Whites will be fired up. Their position closer to the relegation zone than to top is concerning in the grand scheme of things, especially contrasted to their energizing run to second place and Champions League qualifiers last summer. One massive boost will be to look back at their record of visits to face Dynamo; the last time Spartak lost this fixture as a visiting side, 14 years ago, Smolov hadn’t even scored in his first spell, never mind his second.

CSKA Moscow vs Nizhny Novgorod: Can Kerzhakov’s newboys dream?

Kicking off the weekend at home on the back of consecutive wins in the last week is a positive note for CSKA’s new-look side. The chance to leapfrog their Russian Cup victims Sochi into third place adds further incentive, while doing so would extend their winning streak to four matches - a mark they haven’t reached since November 2020. And the visitors? A newly-promoted side that have scored just twice in that run.

The signs point to a straight-forward win, surely? With all four midfield newcomers - Yussuf Yazici, Jorge Carrascal, Jean-Phillipe Gbamin and Jesus Medina - playing at least some part in the gruelling Russian Cup comeback win over Sochi midweek their early fitness levels and adaptation to Russian football will be tested. Anton Zabolotny hobbled off midway through the first half as well, and might not be quite at full fitness. A glimmer of hope for the visitors?

That depends how you look at it. Last weekend they did pick up another three points late on against one of the RPL’s toughest defences at home, and somehow they now lie just one point behind last season’s runners up Spartak Moscow, and mid-table safety. They are unbeaten in four league games - the joint-longest such run outside the top two places - with a comfortable six-point cushion to the automatic drop zone.

On the other hand, they did depend on two red cards for Ural Ekaterinburg and a set piece to break through late on to grind out the unspectacular 1-0 win last weekend. While their overall unbeaten run is reassuring, they have leaked 10 goals in their last four away games, losing three and drawing the fourth. After a tough run of five straight defeats in October and November, can Aleksandr Kerzhakov steer Nizhny Novgorod to a dream survival?

Rostov vs Sochi: Southern comfort in troubling times

Rostov are nothing is not entertaining, but certainly appear to revel in upsetting the rule book. As things stand, they have only won four league games all season, and have the worst defensive record in the RPL with 35 goals conceded, and yet at the same time are only one point off guaranteed safety. They remain in the relegation playoff zone though, despite boasting the fourth-highest goals tally even having played a game fewer than most sides.

Matches against fellow southerners Sochi were always going to have extra needle to them, but the rivalry has nudged up a notch or two in recent seasons. In three visits to Sochi, they have conceded a whopping 17 goals - thanks to the all-time record RPL defeat back in 2020, the infamous 10-1 thrashing - and still managed to score five of their own. They haven’t conceded any goals in the two home meetings though, so revenge will certainly be on their minds as a real possibility.

Sochi, meanwhile, have the pressures of expectation on their shoulders. The Russian Cup exit to CSKA Moscow at home midweek was a blow not only to their confidence, but also slightly to their preparations for this fixture. Rostov were rather humiliatingly knocked out by third-tier Chayka in the Elite Group Stage, which has allowed them extra time to prepare.

Last season’s qualification for the UEFA Europa Conference League was no fluke though for Sochi, as they already have a four-point gap to Akhmat, who lie just outside the European places. They rarely do things by half either; just one draw all season suggests there will be goals in this clash. Sochi’s job will be to juggle all the factors against a side fighting for their lives.


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