21.05.2022

Matchday 30 Preview: Slutsky’s last stand, Bridesmaids’ Battle, Kerzhakov’s emotional balance

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We have looked ahead to the final round of fixtures in the Russian Premier Liga season to bring you the key storylines to watch out for.

Rubin Kazan vs Ufa: Slutsky’s last stand?

Cast your minds back one year; Rubin Kazan had embarked on a wildly successful campaign that took them to within four points of a return to Champions League football, eventually settling for the inaugural Conference League. On his home debut, Sead Haksabanovic missed a crucial penalty in the final minute of extra time in the return leg qualifier to see a European dream denied, but the squad was boosted and full of attacking adventure.

With the mass exodus of players since the winter break, however, Rubin’s form has left too. A dire run of results has seen them lose 11 of the last 14 RPL fixtures, and they enter the last matchday with the very real possibility of being relegated from the top flight. Leonid Slutsky has won everything there is to win in Russian football, but this will be one of his hardest tests to date - dragging a performance of character out of his confidence-shy squad to save their skin.

The pressure is even bigger as they face not only the league’s top goalscorer in 19-goal Gamid Agalarov, but his teammates and direct relegation rivals Ufa. The formula is simple for the visitors: win, and have a chance of survival in the playoffs, but any other result and their fate will be sealed. In almost direct contrast to Rubin, they have the platform of consistent stubborn refusal to lose of late, with only two defeats from their last nine games.

It couldn’t happen… could it? From Champions League knockouts and multiple RPL titles to relegation would be some fall from grace on Slutsky’s CV, but we can be sure Ufa will not stand on ceremony with their own top-flight survival at stake. 

Nizhny Novgorod vs Zenit St. Petersburg: Rested Champions to deliver Kerzhakov knockout blow?

To guide a newly-promoted club as young as Nizhny Novgorod to this position going into the final weekend is in itself an impressive achievement for Aleksandr Kerzhakov in his debut RPL season in management. There is more than a twist of irony that the previous record Russian goalscorer has presided over the lowest scorers in the league so far this season, but there is no fluke to the organization and resilience Kerzhakov has overseen.

Before the plaudits roll in too quickly though, there is one last hurdle to overcome - a flat run of form that has seen his side slide slowly but surely back into relegation zone territory. In the last six league matches they have failed to score in four of them, and have picked up just one win in the last 10 matches. With Richlord Ennin out suspended, there might be a temptation to apply a backs-against-the-wall approach. If two of three sides below them win, even a draw would not be enough to avoid the playoffs.

Zenit of course have long seen pressures gone from their campaign after sealing the title two matchdays ago. With no Russian Cup Final to prepare for either, manager Sergey Semak has admitted he may allow some of his Latin American contingent to return home on holiday early and field a mostly Russian lineup, as he did last season for the final game away to Tambov. 

With most squads, replacing the potential absence of Wendel, Claudinho, Malcolm, Douglas Santos and Yuri Alberto would be very tricky. Zenit, however, have almost an entire bench of international to take their place, such as Andrey Mostovoy, Artem Dzyuba, Magomed Ozdoev, Aleksey Sutormin. 

Dynamo Moscow vs Sochi: Bridesmaids’ Battle for record Premier Liga finishes

Dynamo did at least manage to avoid the embarrassment of a fourth consecutive defeat last weekend in a thrilling 3-3 derby draw against Lokomotiv, but even in claiming a respectable point on paper, they managed to display defensive frailties. Admittedly an edge has been taken off this fixture by the lack of Champions League football available to Russian clubs next season, but there is still a delicate balance to be struck for a wounded Dynamo side. 

The obvious elephant in the room this weekend will be the focus on a Cup Final against bitter rivals Spartak in a week’s time. No players will want to risk missing the showpiece event at the Luzhniki, but there is the intangible damage to confidence and form if Sandro Schwarz’s men fold at home to let Sochi leapfrog them into second. Holding onto the runners up spot would deliver a highest-ever Premier Liga era finish, and joint-highest in three decades.

For Sochi, given their brief existence as a club at all, it will come as little surprise that they are already guaranteed to claim their best-ever finish. On their meteoric trajectory they might allow themselves to dream of a title challenge next season - and who would bet against them? A seven-match unbeaten run has shot them up into the lofty position on the back of the joint-second best defensive record over the campaign.

Although silverware is not at stake, Sochi might well see a golden opportunity to plant their claims for next season. Whichever version of Dynamo turns up on the day, you can be sure of goals and drama; there have been 16 goals in the Blue-Whites’ last three games alone, while Sochi have plundered seven goals in their last two away games.

Khimki vs Spartak Moscow: Can Khimki escape relegation playoff lottery?

Although Khimki are just one of five sides battling for a chance of survival in the final day, only they and Rubin come into matchday 30 on the back of a losing streak. Has the lustre of Sergey Yuran’s mercurial touch worn off, or has he done enough to set up one last push to retain RPL status? Even in a worst-case scenario where they lose, they can’t slip into the bottom two, so there is at least a comfort zone to fall back on.

A draw might be enough to see them escape the playoffs. Khimki have a superior head-to-head record over Ural, so that one-point gap would be overcome if the Ekaterinburg side lose. The permutations go deeper though; while that scenario would see them above Ural, a Rubin or Ufa win would take either side above Khimki on points and head-to-head respectively. 

Spartak are still, remarkably, in the bottom half despite picking up seven points from their last three matches. Last weekend a superb diving header from Aleksandr Sobolev - his fifth in his last five RPL appearances - almost made it three wins from three before Zenit’s added time equaliser, and they could finish as high as seventh depending on Krylia Sovetov, Rostov and Akhmat results.

What difference would a league position or two higher make to Paolo Vanoli’s season though? The Spartak manager has come through a testing first few months in charge to set up one last salvation - the Russian Cup Final - which will take precedence over a league campaign to forget. Team selection will be telling as key players will most likely rested or at least rotated. How motivated those that do appear turn out to be could be decisive for their hosts.


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