Matchday 24 Preview: Khimki ruffling feathers, Slutsky digs deep, Grozny awaits Zenit

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We have picked out the key plots to follow in the story of matchday 24 in the Russian Premier Liga.

Khimki vs CSKA Moscow: Rising ex-landlords threaten CSKA eviction from title race

Sergey Yuran has already performed minor miracles at Khimki once before, lifting the Moscow region side back into the top flight in 2020 as well as guiding them to an improbable Russian Cup Final appearance that summer. His next trick might well be as valuable, as his alchemist touch has converted the rock-bottom side into a suddenly dangerous side that peeled itself off the foot of the table.

When new signing Didier Lamkel Ze abruptly departed the club under the emergency FIFA ruling offered to foreign players after an explosive if fleeting spell in black and white, it seemed the spark they so desperately needed had gone. Three unbeaten games in a row have totally transformed their prospects, with last week’s late 3-2 win over Rubin only the second time they’d managed to score three goals in a league game all season.

It would be naive to suggest they have completely turned the corner yet though, as they remain level on points with the other three sides in the relegation playoff spots. With all due respect to Ural and Rubin, CSKA are also a totally different prospect having won all but one of their fixtures since the start of November. Although an away game, the Armymen are also no strangers to the Arena Khimki of course, and have not had to travel in their last two matchdays.

Last weekend was a jolt to the sense though as they were largely outplayed for significant periods by notoriously goal-shy Ural, and relied on an added-time penalty just to rescue a point. They cannot afford the slightest assumption that Khimki will roll over for them, with six points separating them from Zenit at the top of the table. Tricky visits to Ufa and Grozny sandwich a Moscow derby against Dynamo afterwards; this weekend will effectively grant or deny them permission to chase the RPL crown.

Rubin Kazan vs Krasnodar: How deep can Slutsky dig?

Sometimes no matter how hard a club struggles against the tide, form, fortune and momentum simply turn against them. After a seventh defeat in eight RPL games last weekend, agonisingly sealed in the last minute, Rubin are now only four points of the bottom and firmly staring into the battle everyone wants to avoid. Twenty goals conceded in that time point fairly clearly to the obvious problem - but how to solve it?

Leonid Slutsky’s reputation as one of the finest Russian coaches of the modern era remains intact, but will be severely tested in ways he has not been used to. He will have to pick his men up, dust them down, and somehow deflect attention from their dire run of form that threatens to plunge the 2008 & 2009 RPL champions into a maddeningly tight relegation scrap. 

Krasnodar may feel harshly done by after a narrow VAR review decision led to the match-winning penalty for visitors Dynamo Moscow last week. Although it was their first defeat in eight league games, their performances of late have been encouraging despite leaning on a raft of new faces to keep pushing for the top four.

They also have the psychological advantage of having won five of the last six encounters against Rubin. In fact, Krasnodar have only lost once to the Kazan outfit in the last nine years, so although both sides are without key difference makers, Rubin are the ones with a monkey on their back coming into this matchday. Another slip-up here, and the unthinkable will become all too real.

Akhmat Grozny vs Zenit St. Petersburg: Grozny banana skin awaits Zenit

For a moment, it was looking like Akhmat might gate-crash the race for the top four spots. Mathematically of course they still could with seven games still to go, but the two sides above them - Lokomotiv Moscow and Krasnodar - still have a postponed fixture in hand, and have overtaken Andrey Talalaev’s men in the last four matchdays.

Few things can spark it back into life like a visit from the glamorous reigning champions though, especially when Zenit have traditionally struggled in Grozny. Akhmat have only ever lost four times in 14 top-flight home games against Zenit, with the last of those rare defeats coming seven years back. When pride is all that’s left to play for, it can be a dangerous intangible for visiting teams to the Akhmat Arena.

Sergey Semak’s men let a glimmer of hope slip back into the title race for their rivals after they dropped points last weekend. In itself, holding Sochi to a clean sheet on their own patch is a respectable result, but it cut Zenit’s lead to three points after Dynamo edged past Krasnodar.

Respectable points are only so useful with challengers breathing down one’s neck though. Zenit have now drawn their last three away games in a row, and it is no recent slump - if it can be called that. The reigning champions have won one more match on the road than relegation-zoned Khimki, and only two in the last eight months, so their pressure point is clear. Can Akhmat exploit it?

Rostov vs Lokomotiv Moscow: Will the real Rostov please stand up?

Rostov’s fifth home game in seven league fixtures could offer a crucial insight into their run-in, but predicting what that will be is easier said than done. The midweek 1-0 win over Krylia was vital in lifting them out of the relegation rat race, and in truth could have been more but for a first-ever RPL penalty miss from Dmitry Poloz. And yet, just four days earlier on the same pitch, they squandered a chance to see off one of the lowest-scoring sides in the league.

Only Zenit have seen more goals for and against in their games than Rostov’s remarkable 75 in 23 games; despite this, two of their last three home games have finished 1-0, and they themselves have managed only three goals in the last four at home. Valery Karpin’s side have flitted around the lower reaches of the table for much of the season - but a win could lift them up to ninth. How can you assess their progress?

One way would be how they fare against the continued form of Lokomotiv. Wilson Isidor streaks on with his impressive feat of having scored in all of his first four matches in Russian football - outdone only by Yusuf Yazici’s similar run that stretches to five games - and will represent the biggest threat for the likely centre-back pairing of Maksim Osipenko and Viktor Melekhin.

In fact, most of the signs point to a flurry of goals at both ends. Three of the last RPL games for both sides have seen them score and concede at least once, while Lokomotiv have let in nine goals in their last five away games with no clean sheets. 

Photo: CSKA, Zenit, Rubin, Konstantin Rybin / RPL


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