Nika Belova Shines as Zenit Pick Up First-Ever Win

It took them five games, but Zenit have finally recorded their first win in club history. Meanwhile, Lokomotiv Moscow’s slip-up has made things a little more interesting at the top of the standings. Let’s recap the action.

Matchday five of the Russian Superliga kicked off in rainy Krasnoyarsk with Yenisey hosting Krasnodar. The home side, invigorated after picking up their first point of the season earlier in the week, took the lead in the 21st minute thanks to nice turn and finish from Ksenia Shakhova. The guests had plenty of chances to equalize – and they even struck the bar from a free kick – but Yenisey managed to hang on and pull off a minor upset to get their first win of the current campaign.

Elsewhere, third-placed Zvezda Perm welcomed league leaders Lok Moscow; a mouth-watering prospect that actually delivered. The match was a back and forth affair, and the table-topping visitors ultimately went in front through Nelli Korovkina, who redirected Lina Yakupova’s cross into the back of the net with the deftest of touches. Despite her assist, Yakupova was once again a peripheral figure, never really settling into the game and rarely getting into dangerous positions; a far cry from her very impressive 2019 season. The same can be said for Alsu Abdullina, who also struggled to assert herself on the game despite seeing plenty of the ball. The fact that she managed to produce three foul throws – which were all called by the referee – just added to the frustration. The only real standout player was once again Marina Fedorova. The 23-year-old is making a very good and, admittedly, very early case for being the signing of the season.

Zvezda did a good job of unnerving Lok’s usually so reliable defense. A few shaky moments and lapses in concentration provided opportunities to the hosts and eventually, their pressure paid off when captain Olesya Kurochkina won a late penalty and duly converted it herself. The spoils were shared and all eyes turned to the next game to see if CSKA would reclaim top spot against Ryazan.

During the early stages of the first half, it looked as though they wouldn’t, especially after Ryazan put the ball into the back of the net only for the goal to be disallowed as a player in an offside position was adjudged to have obscured the goalkeeper’s vision; CSKA got away with one. After a labored start and a very early tactical switch that saw Yulia Pleshkova substituted in the 18th minute, the champions slowly began growing into the game. Coach Maksim Zinoviev’s tweak paid off big time as Pleshkova’s replacement, Tatyana Petrova, delivered a beautiful cross for Gabrielle Onguéné to head home. The Cameroonian’s fifth goal in as many games was enough to down the guests from Ryazan. Lyubov Yashchenko came on as a second-half sub for her CSKA debut, however, her influence on the game was negligible, as was the case with many of her teammates. Despite yet another mostly subpar performance, CSKA are back to leading the title race.

The photo of the weekend: Olga Chernova outjumping ‘keeper Margarita Shirokova (Source)

Hands down the most exciting game of the weekend was the final game, staged in St. Petersburg. Zenit squared up with Chertanovo in the battle of the strugglers. With both sides in desperate need of some points, curiously, only one showed up – the home side. As soon as the referee blew the whistle, Zenit displayed a kind of urgency and ferocity not seen since their opening day defeat to CSKA. Chertanovo just could not cope.

Ekaterina Sochneva opened the scoring with a near-post blast after a nice pass from 16-year-old Zarina Sharifova. Both had decent games, with Sochneva being a lot more influential than in previous matches, and Sharifova giving a good account of herself on her full Zenit debut. Whenever Chertanovo did venture forward, Lyudmila Shadrina was there to put out any fires. The 27-year-old center-back put in an outstanding shift and she left a lasting impression on Sardar Azmoun and his mother, with the Zenit men star, who was in attendance, later posting on Instagram that his mom “fell in love” with the way Shadrina plays.

Azmoun also witnessed a breakout performance from Nika Belova. After Zenit’s loss to Lok earlier in the week, I mentioned that Belova was more influential in a few minutes playing as a ten than she had been in all her previous games as a six and thankfully for Zenit, coach Olga Poryadina kept it that way. Belova scored a brace and put in a Player of the Match display, although admittedly, both of her goals were largely down to some generous defending.

Despite being just 17 years old, this is already Belova’s third season of first-team football. Ever since her childhood, it has been blatantly obvious that she is a special talent, winning countless individual and team honors at children’s and youth levels. Born in Minusinsk, in the Krasnoyarsk region of Siberia, she made her debut for local side Yenisey in October of 2018, at a mind-boggling 15 years of age, and just ten days later, in her second-ever game, she played the full ninety and was voted Player of the Match. In 2019, she became a regular fixture in the Yenisey first team, playing over 1000 minutes and scoring four goals. What a smart pick-up she has turned out to be for Zenit.

This performance against Chertanovo was no coincidence. It’s an old cliché, but she is wise beyond her years and mentally already miles ahead of most of her older teammates and peers in her age group. The scary thing is, there is no obvious weakness in her game. Technically gifted, physical, quick off the mark, and with a very good ability to read the game, as showcased by her second goal against Chertanovo, where she was anticipating that the goalkeeper would spill the ball – all while looking along the line to stay onside – while the opposition’s defenders were motionless.

Nika Belova is a terrifying prospect. She has previously stated that she wants to play abroad in the future and if she keeps developing at this rate, a team from a top five league will come calling soon, possibly as early as next year. Alsu Abdullina is generally regarded as the youngster in Russia with the biggest upside, but for me it’s Belova, her ceiling is in outer space.

This was Zenit’s first victory in club history and as expected, they looked better against weaker opposition, but Chertanovo certainly didn’t help themselves with yet another poor outing and a horrible defensive performance. Zenit have a solid squad with a very talented foundation and even some of the pieces that usually go under the radar like right-back Maria Digurova are actually pretty good, they just need to come out of their shell a bit more when they face the nominally bigger sides. It’s easy to collect three points against a young, inexperienced team whose shaky defense allows you to play with more freedom, it’s a different challenge trying to break down more compact sides. Olga Poryadina still has a lot of work to do.

The Superliga returns on Tuesday with Nika Belova going up against her former team, as Yenisey host Zenit, with the rest of the action taking place on Wednesday. CSKA travel to Perm to face Zvezda, Krasnodar welcome Chertanovo, and Lok Moscow will be looking to bounce back against Ryazan.


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