Matchday four of the Russian Superliga once again proved to be an exciting one. There were narratives aplenty, so let’s dive straight into the action without much chit-chat.
The first match of the fourth round paid homage to the recently concluded MLS is Back Tournament with a ridiculously early kick-off; Krasnodar played host to Zvezda-2005 and the home side got the ball rolling at 10 a.m. local time.
However, it was the visitors from Perm who dominated from the onset, and their pressure eventually paid off late in the first half when they found the opening goal through captain Olesya Kurochkina. The 36-year-old veteran left national team goalkeeper Tatyana Shcherbak rooted to the spot with a well-placed header. Unfortunately for the six-time Russian champions, one goal wasn’t enough and Krasnodar equalized in second-half stoppage time, when Elena Kostareva pounced on a spilled rebound. With this point, Krasnodar have now firmly entrenched themselves in mid-table, while Zvezda remain within distance of the top two.
The second match of the day saw Ryazan face perennial strugglers Yenisey. It seemed as though it would be another miserable day at the office for the Krasnoyarsk outfit when a dominant Airborne stormed in front thanks to a casual half-volley from Maria Vukovich, but the Siberians weren’t to be deterred and surprisingly struck back late on. An 87th-minute header from Tatyana Sheykina sealed Yenisey’s first point of the season and left Ryazan ruing their squandered chances.
Matchday four’s two main events kicked off simultaneously and pitted a buoyant Lokomotiv up against the strugglers of Zenit, while CSKA, in desperate need of a win after having dropped points earlier in the week, traveled to crosstown rivals Chertanovo, rooted alone to the foot of the table after Yenisey’s earlier draw.
Spectators at the Sapsan Arena witness a good if unspectacular match, as the home side ran out 2-0 winners over their St. Petersburg opponents. Zenit coach Olga Poryadina resumed her goalkeeping guessing game, this time electing to start Yulia Grichenko after selecting Alena Belyaeva in the previous match – she is probably still trying to figure out who her first-choice ‘keeper is, or, perhaps, she just wants to keep the both of them on their toes.
Poryadina also thankfully made the slight tactical tweak that I had secretly been crying out for over the past week or so: push Nika Belova further upfield! If you’re going to give a 17-year-old the number seven shirt, then at least play her in her favored, advanced position! Well, she finally did and it paid dividends; Belova was more influential in the first fifteen minutes of this game as a ten in a 4-2-3-1, than she had been in all of her previous starts playing almost as a destroyer at the six in a midfield three. Oh, and she also nutmegged last year’s Team of the Season inclusion Alina Myagkova. As you do.
Kazakh international Aida Gaistenova finally made her Zenit bow after recovering from an injury that had kept her out for the start of the season, while newest recruit Tatyana Evodo came on as a substitute, almost combining for a late consolation goal on her debut mere days after signing.
Lok were the dominant side on the day, but it was by no means a vintage performance. 2019 Golden Boot winner Nelli Korovkina made her return to the side, but it was the duo of Alsu Abdullina and Marina Fedorova who truly impressed. The new signings put in excellent displays and both rewarded themselves with a goal each. Lina Yakupova, usually one of the league’s star players, has been surprisingly ineffective so far this season.
For Zenit, it was a case of same old, same old. The side’s first instinct is to be defensively solid and more power to them, they are a completely new team after all and don’t want to get hammered, but it does make for quite dull affairs. They are toothless and bereft of ideas going forward and they lack a genuine difference-maker (Belova showed glimpses), the kind that captain Ekaterina Sochneva was supposed to be. But because she is playing as kind of a flat, defensive winger – basically as a wing-back – she doesn’t even get into positions that would allow her to positively affect the game. With all that being said, I do expect them to come good and get decisive results in their upcoming games against weaker opposition.
In the other game, champions CSKA looked determined to put the draw against Krasnodar behind them and they were at Chertanovo’s throat from the off, taking an 8th-minute lead through Valeria Bizenkova. Despite keeping up the pressure, CSKA struggled to create clear-cut chances and when Kristina Komissarova got on the end of a dangerous cross to put Chertanovo level two minutes from the end of regular time it looked like history would repeat itself. But alas, good teams always find a way, as they say, and sometimes that particular way is just pure, unadulterated, and perhaps a little undeserved luck. In this case, Fortuna smiled on CSKA, as 18-year-old Tatiana Petrova delivered a cross to the back post that snuck in behind the goalkeeper well into the third minute of the allotted two minutes of stoppage time.
CSKA’s blushes were spared, but it was another worrying performance from Maksim Zinoviev’s side. The champions have lost their air of invincibility and lesser teams don’t fear them like they used to; and so far, CSKA haven’t given them a reason to be fearful. With the draw for the Champions League qualifying round just two weeks away, they will have to improve drastically to be competitive in Europe’s premier competition. There are a couple of things that need to be addressed: the defense, particularly at left-back, and the center-forward position.
Whilst Gaby Onguéné has been on fire, there is seemingly no back-up option if she were to get injured or lose form. Despite her goal against Chertanovo, Valeria Bizenkova is by no means prolific, neither is Natalya Mashina, Daria Yakovleva has featured a few times but more as a winger rather than an out-and-out number nine and new signings Lyubov Yashchenko and Ogonna Chukwudi haven’t seen the pitch at all yet.
Perhaps it would be wise of CSKA to secure the services of another center-forward before they embark on their European odyssey. I was hoping they could lure Nadezhda Karpova home with the promise of Champions League football after she left Sevilla, but that was wishful thinking on my part and she has now signed for Espanyol. Looking abroad, there’s plenty of talent CSKA could target; whether they actually want to sign is a different story. Prolific Bunyodkor striker Lyudmila Karachik could be worth looking at; it would be the perfect step up for the Uzbek striker who has scored 77 goals in 68 games (all comps). Fellow Champions League side Zhytlobud-2 Kharkiv from Ukraine are stacked with deadly finishers, but would they be willing to strengthen a potential future opponent? I doubt it.
Kyrgyz international – and youngest goalscorer in the history of international football at 13 years and 131 days of age – Alina Litvinenko from perennial Kazakh champions BIIK Kazygurt is another player worth looking at. Perhaps home is where the heart is, though. The Superliga can’t claim to have an abundance of prolific forwards, but some players could make worthwhile contributions to CSKA. Elena Kostareva from Krasnodar already has two goals this season, Ryazan’s Serbian attacker Marija Vukovic boasts plenty of experience, and Zvezda’s Ekaterina Pantyukhina impressed with her ten goals last year.
Ultimately, the center-forward position isn’t what concerns me; it’s the team’s lack of attacking support from full-back. CSKA have an embarrassment of riches at right-back, but the same can’t be said of the opposite full-back position. I commended Zinoviev for his commitment to having two absolute ballers at center-back by deciding to utilize Yulia Myasinkova as Ksenia Tsybutovich’s replacement, but as predicted after the first matchday, her wicked crosses have been sorely missed further upfield. She is the only left-footed full-back currently at the club and that needs addressing.
The necessity for another left-footer was especially apparent against Chertanovo. At one point in the game, Elvira Todua played a beautiful pass to Olga Chernova, who was deputizing out left, with acres of space to run into. Chernova, one of the best right-backs in the league, failed to control the ball with her weaker foot and it went out for a throw-in; a dangerous attack squandered.
There was a lot of full-back rotation last year, so when Myasinkov didn’t start, the lack of left-sided dynamism was offset by Ekaterina Sochneva, who either played as a right-winger or right wing-back, but she is gone now and there is nobody with her distinct set of skills; I assume Chukwudi would be able to offer exactly that, but as previously mentioned, she is nowhere to be found. 18-year-old Yulia Pleshkova has also featured at left-back this season and although she is an incredible talent with a very high ceiling, she, too, is a right-back and not a very adventurous one at that.
A simple fix would be to, well, go and get a left-back. Without any kind of data to work with, it’s difficult to identify potential targets, but it’s clear that CSKA really missed out on Alsu Abdullina; she would have been the most ideal fit if ever there was one. Ultimately, though, I would be surprised if they actually signed another full-back. I think it’s far more likely that they will scout for a center-back – which would allow Myasinkova to be pushed back out wide – and perhaps they won’t have to look far.
With Ksenia Kovalenko set to return to full team training in the not too distant future, there is the chance that she could be fit in time for the start of the Champions League. Kovalenko is a right-back – because of course she is, can’t have too many of those – but she has played in central midfield and also at left-back, so she could conceivably slot in at center-back, too.
Whether CSKA will dip into the transfer market or not remains to be seen, but it’s clear that they are going to have to get their act together if they want to be competitive in Europe. Aside from that, there is also the small matter of them trying to retain their domestic crown. Lok still hold a two-point lead at the top of the table as things stand and if CSKA continue to underperform, the other Moscow side will be the one celebrating come the end of the season.