2021 Superliga Season Preview

The winter break is over and Russian football is back in full swing. That also means that a fresh Superliga season is finally upon us! The new campaign of Russia’s elite women’s division will start on March 13 and in addition to the usual subjects, there will be two brand-new teams competing in the league this year.

The 2021 season is set to be an exciting one: in Tricolor, the Superliga has at long last found a broadcaster, CSKA and Lokomotiv, the two Champions League participants, will look to defend their respective pieces of silverware, Zenit and Krasnodar are surely keen to build on their up-and-down debut seasons, and the two new clubs, Rubin Kazan and FK Rostov, are intent on giving a good account of themselves in their first year of existence. Now, without further ado, let’s see what the upcoming campaign could have in store for us, shall we?

The New Teams

FK Rostov

Let’s get Rostov out of the way first because they have shown us exactly how not to treat your fledgling women’s side. There has been almost complete radio silence on Rostov’s website and social media about their new team. They announced Natalya Karaseva, formerly of second-tier outfit Donchanka, as head coach right after breaking the news of their involvement in women’s football, but they didn’t unveil any players until March 11. Not a great way to get people excited about your new team, is it?

Now that we finally know what their roster will look like, we can make some assumptions about their season. Rostov brought in a fair bit of Superliga experience in the form of Kristina Frolova, Anna Stipan, and Natalya Kuzmina among others. However, the crown jewel of this team is undoubtedly Yana Chub. The 31-year-old is an icon of the Krasnodar football scene, having racked up more than a decade of top-flight experience first with Kubanochka and then with FK Krasnodar. I was quite surprised to see her on Rostov’s squad list to be honest, because she was a real difference maker for Krasnodar.

I think Rostov’s debut season could look a lot like Zenit’s inaugural campaign. They have some talent, but their squad is neither strong nor deep enough to really make significant headway. I’m confident that they won’t be atrocious, but it might take some time for them to really get going.

Rubin Kazan

Rubin, on the other hand, have not been as secretive about their squad. The Tatarstan outfit will be coached by Olga Venyaminova from local second division side Miras Kazan, with whom she came fifth last season, and she brought seven (yes, seven) of her players with her to Rubin. In addition to the familiar faces, Venyaminova also signed a few more players from around the lower divisions and four youngsters formerly of Zvezda Perm. The side’s most notable acquisitions are 28-year-old defensive stalwart Anastasia Diyun from Yenisey, and a pair of Russian-born Armenian internationals in the form of Tatyana Dolmatova and Ksenia Garanina from FC Hayasa.

All in all, it’s a fairly underwhelming roster. It’s a tad reminiscent of FK Krasnodar, who kept the majority of Kubanochka Krasnodar’s squad when they took their Superliga spot last year, but the significant difference is that Kubanochka had just finished third the previous season and not fifth in the second tier. When Rubin advertised the formation of their women’s team, they did so with the face of Barcelona star Lieke Martins—which even led some fans to believe that they had actually signed her—and to then not make any kind of statement signing is bitterly disappointing. I fully expect Rubin to struggle this year.

Rubin’s ill-advised graphic. (Source)

The Strugglers

Chertanovo Moscow

Now, let’s work our way from the bottom up. First on the list are Chertanovo, who finished 2020 in dead last, only picking up a solitary win all season. Granted, the Devils are the league’s preeminent development team and thus don’t expect to produce much in the way of tangible success, but nevertheless, it would certainly be in their best interest—not least for morale—to not get smashed every week. With that in mind, Sergey Lavrentiev surely brought in some reinforcements, right? Nope. Chertanovo have made no signings whatsoever, despite losing Diana Kuzmina to Lokomotiv Moscow.

The good news for them is that their absurdly youthful core will be a year older, a year more experienced in 2021, and with the expansion teams not looking like genuine threats, the odds that the wooden spoon won’t stay in Moscow are certainly in Chertanovo’s favor. But don’t expect them to make waves this term.

FK Yenisey

After yet another unremarkable seventh-place finish—something Yenisey have made quite a habit of since returning to the league a few years ago—it begs the question: is this their ceiling? Olga Kapustina’s side showed plenty of promise at times in 2020, taking points off of both Lokomotiv and Zvezda and looking fairly solid throughout the campaign. However, with no real incentive to get better since there is no relegation and with the rewards of finishing a couple of spots higher in the table likely being negligible, and, furthermore, with their resources already fairly limited by virtue of the club’s stature, significant investment probably isn’t forthcoming and Yenisey will forever be shackled to the lower half of the table.

A new assistant coach was hired in the shape of Viktor Trenev, but all in all, the offseason wasn’t kind to the Krasnoyarsk outfit. The Siberians lost seven players and the only notable addition is Aida Gaystenova, who is coming off a really poor 2020. The Kazakh international failed to have the desired impact at Zenit and fitness issues meant that she was restricted to just a couple of appearance; in fact, she was even demoted to the youngsters at one point, where she actually scored the first-ever goal in the youth team’s history—at 26 years of age! Experienced former Torpedo Izhevsk midfielder Olga Tir also joined the club as well as a couple of younger players, but I don’t think Yenisey have properly replaced any of the outgoing talent. It wouldn’t shock me if they finished seventh once again.

The Uknown Quantities

FK Krasnodar

First up in this category of teams I don’t know what to expect from are Krasnodar. Their debut campaign wasn’t bad—they finished above Zenit—but it always felt like this team was lacking a distinct identity; they were just kind of stuck between mid-table mediocrity and actual, tangible signs of promise. This season could well be different, after all, it was they who made the biggest personnel change during the offseason.

The legend that is Tatyana Zaitseva, who can be credited as the architect of modern women’s football in Krasnodar, has been replaced by Gamal Babaev as head coach. With a new manager and a pretty much unchanged team—except for the signings of the inexperienced Varvara Rubtsova and Azerbaijani striker Sevinj Jafarzade—this side could either pick up where they left off last season and meander around mid-table or, conversely, they could actually make a charge for the top four. Despite losing Yana Chub, there is still a good amount of talent on this team, and they have several highly-rated youngsters on their books who will all be a year more experienced now and I fully expect some of them to really come into their own this term. The foundation for a successful season is in place, it’s now up to new coach Babaev to build something that can last.

Ryazan-VDV

The second team that is a complete enigma to me is Ryazan. Despite thankfully being saved from extinction, this side will look almost unrecognizable to the one that came fourth last season. In Ksenia Tsybutovich they not only lost their captain but also a dangerous threat on set pieces, and in Maria Vukovic, who returned to her native Serbia, they lost an outright goalscorer and one of their best players.

Now, they did make a few exciting signings, but this team might well need some time to gel. Viktoria Tikhon, Polina Shatilenya, and Ksenia Kubichnaya all decided to swap Minsk for Ryazan, with all three joining from Belarusian runners-up FK Minsk. Tikhon was a super-sub last season and chipped in with six goals, that’s one more than what Kubichnaya (a defender!) tallied. 25-year-old Shatilenya is more of a wildcard signing because she missed the entirety of last season and the only competitive game she played in 2020 was a 2-0 Champions League loss to Lillestrøm in December.

Ksenia Shakhova has returned to the club after a four-year absence and her former Yenisey teammate, Ksenia Lazareva, also joined. Lastly, Daria Eremenkova, who last played top-flight football with now-extinct Torpedo Izhevsk, and serial Serbian champion Tijana Matic will also don the white of Ryazan this season. Overall, that’s a fairly solid transfer window, the three Belarusians are particularly intriguing signings, but, in the final analysis, I think Georgy Shebarshin’s side will gravitate more towards mid-table rather than the top three in 2021.

The Dark Horses

Zvezda-2005 Perm

Let’s talk about two teams that I think have the potential to make a real splash in terms of the title race this season—whether they can realize that potential is a different question, of course. First up is last year’s third-placed side Zvezda Perm. Elena Suslova went out and mightily strengthened an already more than competent team so that the loss of long-serving attacker Ekaterina Pantyukhina shouldn’t hurt them too much.

Just like Ryazan, the Perm outfit scoured Russia’s neighboring countries for talent, and they may have brought a couple of gems back home with them. From down south, Perm picked up Taisiya Nesterenko, a veteran midfielder who won countless league titles and Ukrainian cups with Zhytlobud-1. Furthermore, four players were signed from Belarus, with three of them joining from FK Minsk: Alesya Lynko, Valeria Belaya, and Belarusian national team goalkeeper Natalia Voskobovich. However, the jewel of Perm’s transfer business is undoubtedly 23-year-old Elizaveta Sergeychik, who is coming off two prolific seasons with Neman. Two-time Superliga champion Natalia Osipova also joined the club, but she didn’t play at all in 2020.

Transfer business is, of course, merely one part of the puzzle. Whether Zvezda will be successful this season will also hinge on the role of Anastasia Akimova, who is, in my opinion, their most naturally gifted player. Akimova was gradually pushed further back over the course of last season, going from playing in a front three in the early months to featuring at left-back by the time the campaign was entering its decisive phase. A hill that I am prepared to die on is that Akimova’s talents are utterly wasted as a defender. If the 29-year-old is allowed to flourish further up the pitch, I wouldn’t be shocked to see Zvezda better last season’s points tally which would mean closing the gap to the two big Moscow sides.

Having said all of the above, it must be acknowledged that, if preseason form is anything to go by, I might well be a tad too optimistic about their chances of challenging the established top two. They were beaten—although only narrowly—by both Krasnodar and Kazakhstani champions BIIK-Kazygurt in their training camp in Turkey which is a slight worry, but, ultimately, only time will tell how good Zvezda truly are.

Zenit Saint Petersburg

Yes, after a fairly dull debut season that was neither terrible nor particularly convincing, it’s perhaps surprising (and a little premature) to regard Zenit as a potential contender. However, their transfer business has simply been too good to ignore. Zenit pulled off coup after coup this offseason and they will go into the campaign confident that they can mount a serious title challenge.

Despite already boasting a fairly resolute backline, Zenit still elected to bring in defensive reinforcements in the shape of Dynamo Minsk captain Yuliana Slesarchik and Ryazan captain Ksenia Tsybutovich. Slesarchik, a 26-year-old left-back, has won numerous trophies in her native Belarus and she was part of a Minsk defense that only conceded four goals on their way to the title last season. Tsybutovich will certainly be a more familiar name to Superliga fans. The 33-year-old veteran has been around forever, anchoring defenses and providing exceptional leadership wherever she has been. The former CSKA and Ryazan captain isn’t just a defensive stalwart, but also a massive threat on set pieces and a confident penalty taker; so much so in fact that she finished CSKA’s 2019 title-winning season as the side’s top scorer, despite being a center back.

The St. Petersburg outfit didn’t just bring in the Dynamo Minsk captain, they also snagged one of their best goalscorers in Anastasia Shuppo. The 23-year-old has tallied a hugely impressive 58 goals over the past three seasons (56 games!) and was a massive part of Minsk finishing 2020 with a ridiculous goal difference of +115, having scored 119 goals in just 21 games. A diminutive, skillful winger, Shuppo will add plenty of firepower and a bit of razzle-dazzle to Zenit.

Speaking of razzle-dazzle, undoubtedly the biggest story of the window was the signing of national team star Lina Yakupova. Like Shuppo, Yakupova is a showstopper, boasting an inexhaustible reserve of natural talent and skill. The veteran has been one of the best players in the Superliga for years and it came as quite a shock when she announced that she would be leaving Lokomotiv Moscow. She didn’t necessarily have her most prolific season in 2020, so a change of scenery might be just what is needed to reinvigorate her career. On her day, she can be a devastating player. Judging by her preseason form, she certainly seems to be up for this new challenge.

The Blue-White-Sky Blues pulled off another coup by recruiting Polish national team star Gabriela Grzywińska. At 25, she’s already a veteran for her country, and with three Ekstraliga titles to her name, the attacking midfielder contributes yet more title-winning experience to this already stacked team. And as if they hadn’t already acquired enough fresh offensive fervor, Zenit also added former Portuguese youth international Ana Dias, more of an unknown quantity, and Ekaterina Pantyukhina from Zvezda. The 27-year-old spent the past decade with the Perm outfit, winning several league titles and cups. 21-year-old midfield all-rounder Veronika Kuropatkina also joined the club on the back of seeing her game time at Lokomotiv decrease drastically last year. After a breakout 2019 season that earned her a call-up to the national team, she was pushed out of the side by Marina Fedorova in 2020 and didn’t feature much. She could prove to be a very savvy pick-up. A few young guns were also brought in, but they will likely struggle for game time.

Obviously, there are some question marks hanging over Zenit this season. How will all these new attacking pieces fit together, how quickly can they gel? Furthermore, how will the arrival of more established players affect talented youngsters like Nika Belova and Zarina Sharifova and their game time? Belova was my Young Player of the Season in 2020 and Sharifova established herself as an indispensable part of the team as the year went on. I’m hopeful that, rather than pushing one or even both out of the team, Olga Poryadina will find a way of accommodating them, so that they can continue their development. Both have massive potential and it would be a shame to see that go to waste.

Considering the level of talent that was brought in and the investment attached to it, anything less than a top-three finish would be extremely underwhelming and would most definitely cost Olga Poryadina her job. Like I said earlier, it might be premature to speak of Zenit as title contenders, but, equally, it would not shock me one bit if they did boast silverware come the end of the season.

The Favourites

Lokomotiv Moscow

After only being second-best for the last two years, could this finally be Lokomotiv’s season? In order to achieve anything in the league, they will have to be a lot more consistent in 2021 than they were in 2020, that’s for sure. The losses of Lina Yakupova and Veronika Kuropatkina to Zenit are absolutely massive not just in terms of sheer quality but also when it comes to dressing room dynamics. With that said, though, Elena Fomina and Loko’s front office did pull off some clever deals to reinforce the team.

Viktoria Kozlova and Diana Kuzmina joined from Yenisey and Chertanovo, respectively, and they will add some high-quality depth to this side. National team defender Irina Podshibyakina was brought in from Zvezda, but whether she will get a starting spot remains to be seen as she missed all of last year through injury. Fomina also looked abroad for talent, snapping up former Belarus international Maria Galay from FK Minsk, American Kaylan Williams from Israeli outfit Ramat Hasharon, and two-time Brazilian champion Suellen Rocha from Corinthians. On paper, the Rocha signing is very exciting, however, expectations should perhaps be tempered somewhat because the 28-year-old hasn’t featured regularly in a side in years.

Even without Yakupova, the 2020 cup winners are still unquestionably one of the favorites for the Superliga title. I fully expect the likes of Nelli Korovkina and Marina Fedorova to pick up where they left off last year, particularly the latter could see her influence increase drastically which can only be a good thing for a player of her quality. It has to be said, though, it was never really a question of whether Loko are good enough to win the league—pound for pound, this team is on par with CSKA—it’s always been more of a case of can they actually keep up with their Moscow rivals. CSKA have shown that they can grind out the narrowest, luckiest of wins; can Loko do the same? That remains to be seen.

CSKA Moscow

It wasn’t pretty, in fact, it was really ugly at times, but CSKA successfully defended their Superliga title last season and they will look to do so again this time around. Continuity seems to be key on the red-and-blue side of Moscow as CSKA refrained from making a splash in the transfer market, instead electing to merely add some depth. Three players were brought in and, ironically, all three have a Loko past.

Ukrainian international Tatyana Kozyrenko and Anastasia Karandashova joined directly from their city rivals, while Ekaterina Bratko was signed from Yenisey, having left Loko after the 2019 season. Karandashova used to be a regular fixture with the Moscow side but she was restricted to just one eleven-minute cameo last season. Bratko was an essential part of Yenisey last year, playing every single minute; the 27-year-old will add a lot of experience and defensive versatility to Maksim Zinoviev’s side. Kozyrenko is a weird one. She’s a center forward but not a very prolific one. In fact, she has only scored nine goals in her three seasons playing in the Superliga.

That throws up the same question that was already asked of this side prior to last season: where will the goals come from? In 2020, Gabrielle Onguéné bailed out her team plenty of times and if she can rekindle her form, CSKA will be fine. But if she can’t, who will step up? Kozyrenko and Lyubov Yachenko are essentially the same player: lanky target strikers that really struggle to consistently find the back of the net. There is no one on this team who is deadly in front of goal. Even Nadezhda Smirnova—for my money, the best player in the league—isn’t prolific, she’s more of a creator.

I think they could rue passing up on the opportunity of making a statement signing. CSKA will still be a force to be reckoned with, of course, and another title defense is certainly possible, but I can’t shake the feeling that they won’t be an unstoppable juggernaut this time around. The opening game of the year—a Moscow Derby between CSKA and Loko in the inaugural edition of the Supercup—has perhaps already given us an indication of how this new campaign could pan out, as Loko came away with a 1-0 win while CSKA looked pretty toothless and bereft of ideas for much of the match. I think the 2021 Superliga season will go right down to the wire, which, ultimately, will be great for the league.

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