Matchday 29 Preview: Bashkortostan dogfight, Gigot’s last Spartak home game

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We’ve looked ahead to the penultimate matchday of this Russian Premier Liga season to bring you the key stories to watch out for.

Ufa vs Arsenal Tula: Dogfight to the death

With the title already decided, there’s no question where the drama lies in the closing two matchdays. The bottom two face off in Bashkortostan for Ufa’s final home game of the season with one last roll of the dice to claw back some breathing space before the dreaded final day, and given the table positions, points and head-to-head records both they and Arsenal Tula know a draw isn’t going to help matters. For both sides it would mean an Ural Ekaterinburg win on Sunday would relegate them both.

Curiously, both sides have shown up on more than one significant occasion this season. Ufa have lost only once in their last eight home league games, and have held champions Zenit St. Petersburg, Lokomotiv Moscow, CSKA Moscow, Spartak Moscow and Krasnodar to 1-1 draws at home. The standout performer has undoubtedly been RPL top scorer Gamid Agalarov with a scarcely believable tally of 18 goals in a side that could still finish bottom, but the team spirit to claw back late goals has been equally impressive.

Arsenal Tula may have leaked a league-high 55 goals this campaign, but are far from simply making up the numbers. Like Ufa they have drawn their last two games, and are responsible for one of only two defeats suffered by Zenit as well as beating Lokomotiv on their own ground. The onus is certainly on them though; lose, and their fate is sealed regardless of other results. Draw, and there is an outside chance they could snatch a dramatic survival next weekend - but that would depend on Ural losing at home this weekend, as well as Ufa losing at Rubin on the last matchday.

Permutations can be bandied about but on Saturday it is clear that neither side can afford to sit back and wait. No side has won fewer home games than Ufa; no side has won fewer away games than Arsenal. The visitors have not kept a single clean sheet away from home all season; the hosts haven’t scored more than one goal in a home game since September. Something will surely have to give.

Lokomotiv Moscow vs Dynamo Moscow: How far can Lokomotiv derail Dynamo?

One of the few remaining highlights left this season will be the Moscow Derby in the Russian Cup Final between historic rivals Dynamo and Spartak after both sides saw off second-tier opposition in the semi-finals, but first there is the small matter of Lokomotiv to negotiate first. The Railroaders have Francois Kamano and Anton Miranchuk easing their way back from injuries in recent weeks, Tin Jedvaj and Konstantin Maradishvili back from suspension, leaving a strong squad to choose from.

Lokomotiv may have endured a fair bit of disruption on and off the pitch with changing personnel, but when it comes to hosting derbies they have a strong recent record; just one of the last six home league games against other Moscow sides has been lost. With the dire run of RPL form from Dynamo, they will smell the perfect chance to sign off this campaign in front of their fans with some bragging rights.

Sandro Schwarz’s side ran Zenit close in the title race for so long until their current three-match losing streak toppled their chances. The last time they lost four in a row came in their relegation season six years ago; although there isn’t technically anything riding on this result in league matters, extending that unwanted run would surely prey on their minds to some degree. With their last RPL fixture against nearest rivals Sochi, who are now level on points, there is the very real possibility of a 15-point swing over the last five matchdays.

After beating CSKA back in August, Dynamo have failed to win any other Moscow derbies since then, or any of the last five away from home. Disregarding the importance of this one ahead of the Spartak showpiece might not help matters; how far will this outcome affect Dynamo?

Ural Ekaterinburg vs Rubin Kazan: Ural’s Great Escape?

Another critical relegation battle will take place in the Urals as out-of-sorts Rubin find themselves scrapping to stay out of the playoffs. Last weekend’s 3-1 home defeat to Spartak did put the brakes on Igor Shalimov’s side charging out of trouble somewhat after two straight wins, but a direct clash against their nearest rivals for the drop offers not only a real test of character, but a crucial mathematical chance of escaping the playoffs themselves.

They remain the lowest scorers in the RPL - even if they have scored almost a third of their goals in the last four matches - and for a side that has built its chances on a tight defence it doesn’t help that there have been no clean sheets in the last seven matches overall. 

Over the last six games though, Rubin have conceded more and scored fewer goals than any other RPL side. Just when they seemed to be on the verge of recovering from the 6-0 humiliation at the hands of Sochi to claim what would have been a very creditable point away to Lokomotiv, up steps Anton Miranchuk from the penalty spot with three minutes to go. 

Almost no matter what Leonid Slutsky has tried since late November, his team have struggled to recover last season’s electric form that carried them to the cusp of Europe. They last kept a clean sheet away from home last July, and are one of only two sides to concede at least 50 goals this campaign. If Ufa have already won by the time Rubin face Ural, a defeat in Ekaterinburg would set up an all-or-nothing survival battle against Ufa themselves on the last day.

Spartak Moscow vs Zenit St. Petersburg: One last glamorous fling before Gigot goes

Having secured a Cup Final spot against Dynamo, Spartak’s season has a ready-made denouement that can go some way to papering over the cracks of a disjointed league campaign. There’s no point crying over RPL spilt milk at this point; the highest they can finish is seventh, and the lowest 10th, so even if they do make up ground on Akhmat Grozny and Krylia Sovetov Samara above them the campaign will be one to move on from. The 29 May showdown at the Luzhniki offers a chance at the club’s first silverware since 2017, and an explosive end to the season.

Whenever the most dominant side of recent years and most successful club in Russian history clash, however, it doesn’t matter where or in what context; it brings an aura of heavyweights that few other fixtures can conjure up. Samuel Gigot bows out of Russian football this summer as his loan from Marseille ends after four years as a true Red-White warrior, with this his last time playing in front of the Spartak faithful at the Otkritie Arena. It would be some send-off if he could rouse the troops for one last clash against the best.

Zenit St. Petersburg of course have the luxury of having sealed the extent of their season’s competitive aims with a fourth consecutive championship already in the bag. Whether former Spartak youth product and club top scorer Artem Dzyuba will start against his former side remains to be seen with the fine form of Ivan Sergeev, who’s scored in each of Zenit’s last four games in all competitions. Just the added spice a Dzyuba cameo would bring adds another layer to the game.

When the standards demanded of a club are as high as they are in St. Petersburg, there’s no chance Sergey Semak will allow the players to take their feet off the pedal, even if there is rotation. With the resources they have to call upon mean rotation doesn’t constitute a weaker approach; Russian internationals Dzyuba, Aleksandr Erokhin, Magomed Ozdoev and Andrey Mostovoy - with 23 RPL goals between them this season - have all come off the bench. 


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