Matchday 21 Preview: Armymen revenge, Sergeev’s Samara return, Chaotic Spartak goalfest

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We have looked ahead to this weekend’s matchday 21 fixtures in the Russian Premier Liga to pick out the key storylines to follow.

Lokomotiv Moscow vs CSKA Moscow: Armymen revenge?

Earlier in the season, Lokomotiv drew first blood by beating CSKA 2-1 away at the VEB Arena back in July. Times were different; Marko Nikolic was still in charge, Fedor Smolov was on the scoresheet for the Railroaders, Anton Miranchuk, Ze Luis, Stanislav Magkeev, Murilo and Pablo all got gametime, and Lokomotiv were in the European places.

Fast forward to March 2022, and the RZD Arena is led by its third head coach of the season in 36-year-old caretaker boss Marvin Compper after Markus Gisdol’s arrival and departure. Smolov has joined Dynamo, Lokomotiv have slipped to sixth after just four wins in their last 12 RPL fixtures, and those five players previously mentioned are either injured or have moved on. They have one key weapon in their arsenal ahead of the CSKA clash - bragging rights.

Although CSKA boast an impressive recent run of form with four consecutive wins with clean sheets, they have lost the last five clashes against Lokomotiv. It’s all very well being within three points of the top two and possible Champions League football; in a derby, away from home, all bets are off - as Aleksey Berezutsky’s side know well from their epic 2-0 win away to Spartak attests.

In fact, it has been almost seven years since CSKA won away to Lokomotiv in the league. Igor Akinfeev, Mario Fernandes and Alan Dzagoev are still playing now from that side - while the Berezutsky twins Vassily and Aleksey are now on the coaching staff - that won back in May 2015. Win, and they have a chance catching Dynamo on points. Lose, and the monkey on their back will grow ever larger.

Krylia Sovetov Samara vs Zenit St. Petersburg: Sergeev returns

One of the surprise packages of the season have been Krylia after they burst back into the top flight after a record-breaking season in the second-tier FNL-1 in 2020/21, when Ivan Sergeev plundered 40 goals to fire them back into the RPL. His combination with Vladislav Sarveli, Anton Zinkovsky and even the teenage sensation Sergey Pinyaev off the bench laid a potentially explosive foundation for an assault on the top half of the table.

Sergeev was snapped up over the winter, however, by league leaders Zenit St. Petersburg to provide cover for the departed Sardar Azmoun. Despite the wealth of vigorous attacking talent at Igor Osinkin’s disposal, it is their defence that has proven to be the rock on which their top-flight campaign has been built. Only CSKA and Krasnodar have conceded fewer goals in 20 matchdays so far. Whether they will welcome Sergeev back gently or not remains to be seen.

He has already made his mark for the reigning champions on his RPL debut for them, with a sensational, instinctive added time winner against Rubin Kazan last month. It is a sign of how fast football moves on that just a fortnight later Zenit have tightened their stranglehold on a fourth consecutive title in a row by opening up a five-point lead at the top of the table, but at the time Sergeev’s goal saved them from finishing matchday 19 level on points with Dynamo.

By the time Sergey Semak’s men travel to Samara, they could be in a position to extend their lead even further if Arsenal Tula manage to take points off Dynamo on Saturday. It would be a bittersweet moment for Sergeev if he were the man to apply the finishing touch again - but that’s the price to pay for moving up in the world.

Spartak Moscow vs Krasnodar: Chaotic goalfest incoming

If Paolo Vanoli came to Moscow expecting a comfortable, peaceful ride, he was much mistaken. The Italian has already endured a free-scoring cup thrashing and two capital derbies, winning away to high-flying historic rivals Dynamo last time out, and seen his side barred from European competition. Perhaps the best medicine to simply calm the heart-thumping pace would be a simple home game against a mid-table struggler.

Then again, that would be too good to be true. Instead he must direct his troops against a side that have produced goals galore against Spartak. Almost exactly a year ago Spartak hammered six goals past Krasnodar to equal their heaviest victory in the top flight in 17 years, while five of the last six encounters between these two in the RPL have seen both teams score. With Shamar Nicholson on fire with four goals in two games, it would take a brave man to bet for a goalless draw.

Krasnodar have been left to pick up the pieces of a mass exodus of foreign players, including five of their seven highest scorers so far in Jhon Cordoba (six goals), Remy Cabella, Grzegorz Krychowiak (both four goals), Viktor Claesson (three) and Tonny Vilhenna (two). Those dangermen departing will hurt even more while watching academy product Daniil Utkin enjoy the season of his life on loan at Akhmat Grozny, where he has scored seven.

Vladimir Ilyin led the line against his former club last weekend, and did his job brilliantly by scoring and making his presence in the penalty area a real nuisance. While the names on the teamsheet may have changed, the club is still the same attacking behemoth as the fourth-highest scoring side in the RPL, and they currently lie a respectable fifth in the table - six points and four places above Spartak. A quiet afternoon? Unlikely.

Rubin Kazan vs Rostov: Lisakovich let loose

Losing Djordje Despotovic and Ivan Ignatyev over a single winter transfer window could have been seen as a major blow to most sides not that long ago, but not for Rubin so far. Arguably the form player in the RPL since the season restarted has been Rubin’s Belarusian forward Vitaly Lisakovich, who has already bagged himself five goals in three matches since arriving in Kazan - three in the league, and two in the Russian Cup - as well as assisting another in last weekend’s vital 2-1 win away to Akhmat Grozny.

Lisakovich’s contributions almost helped claim a point in St. Petersburg the weekend before, but perhaps more crucially ended a dispiriting losing streak that had stretched to four league games. It probably isn’t being too unkind to say European qualification ambitions have slipped out of Leonid Slutsky’s hands now, with 11 points to make up to reach the top four, but restoring pride to a side that leaked too many missed opportunities this season is a worthy task in itself.

Rostov meanwhile have welcomed back Valery Karpin to the head coach hot-seat on a provisional basis until Russia are readmitted back into international competition. His long association with the southerners - and the national team’s current exile from FIFA competition -  means the transition back into his dual role will take little readjustment. There is, however, considerable work to be done - and not just to stop Lisakovich.

For starters, they haven’t won in five games, and last kept a clean sheet in October - still their only shutout all season. The very real threat of relegation hangs ominously over them, with just two points separating them from the automatic drop zone. Only three goals scored in the last four RPL games won’t help either. If they can start by keeping Rubin’s Belarusian hotshot quiet, it will be a good start.

Photo: Konstantin Rybin / RPL; Vyacheslav Evdokimov / Zenit St. Petersburg; Andrey Shramko / FC Krasnodar; Artem Gusev / FC Rostov


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