Will the Superliga Have New Champions This Season?

Round nine of the Russian Superliga was a big one for a multitude of reasons. A 15-year-old scored on her debut, Zenit are still going strong, Rostov are good now (kind of), and, of course, there was a Moscow derby with massive title implications. Let’s recap the action!

We’re going to start by looking at the most low-key fixture of the matchday, Ryazan versus Rubin Kazan. There really isn’t a lot that we need to discuss here because we didn’t learn anything from this game that we didn’t already know. Rubin are bad. They are very much not good. They still haven’t picked up a single point, they have conceded 26 goals and scored just once, and, unfortunately, after their next game against Yenisey, they will have to face Lokomotiv, so it certainly looks like their fortunes won’t improve anytime soon. The hosts came away with a 2-0 win, and while a record of three wins and six losses still doesn’t look great, Ryazan can take encouragement from the fact that they are only two points off fifth.

Elsewhere, Krasnodar hosted Rostov in what turned out to be the most surprising result of the round. The visitors snatched the three points thanks to a nice volley from Nadezhda Koltakova on a biblically wet day in Krasnodar. Anna Peshkova’s late sending-off was the only sour note on what was otherwise a fantastic day for Rostov. After a forgettable start to their debut season, the newbies now find themselves in the dizzying heights of fifth, having lost only once in their past five games. Krasnodar, meanwhile, are a point behind in seventh and, besides the odd moment of magic from Elena Kostareva, they look remarkably average.

In Perm, we got to witness a clash between fourth and second, as Zvezda entertained Zenit. Despite Zvezda at times looking rather unconvincing this season, this turned out to be a pretty even game, and perhaps it’s testament to the fact that while they may not always look the part, they can still compete. With that being said, though, Zvezda ultimately came away empty-handed from this fixture because Anna Akimova headed the ball into the wrong goal – not a great belated birthday present. Zenit were quite fortunate to take home the three points, though, considering that they were down to ten for the last twenty minutes after Ekaterina Pantyukhina’s second yellow card. The St. Petersburg outfit are keeping pace with Lokomotiv, but they haven’t looked particularly impressive lately, which should concern Olga Poryadina.

While the Moscow derby was clearly the main event of the round, it was the fixture involving the smaller Moscow team, Chertanovo, that actually stole the show. In keeping with their tradition as the best producers of young talent, the Devils handed 15-year-old Polina Semina her debut – and would you believe it, she actually managed to score. Unfortunately for the youngsters of Chertanovo, it was the visitors from Siberia, Yenisey, that came away with all three points.

The Krasnoyarsk outfit took the lead twice in this one, first through Olga Tir in the 14th minute, which was canceled out by Semina, and then again halfway through the second half thanks to a screamer from Tatyana Anayeva. Chertanovo thought they had snatched a point when Alena Andreeva headed home a Yulia Bessolova cross in the 91st minute. But alas, there was still enough time for Yenisey to retaliate, and retaliate they did through Aida Gaystenova who scored mere moments after Chertanovo equalized to hand Yenisey a hard-fought win that saw them climb up to sixth while the home side slipped down to second bottom.

In the big one, league leaders Lokomotiv welcomed defending champions CSKA to RZD Arena. Before the game kicked off, I tweeted that it was still too early to call this a must-win for CSKA, but it was certainly a must-not-lose fixture if they wanted to stay within touching distance of their rivals. Well, Maksim Zinoviev’s side didn’t manage to avoid defeat and they could be in real trouble now.

For me, the biggest takeaway from this game is that I was right to be worried about CSKA’s dearth of attacking options before the season started, particularly when it comes to the number nine spot. Admittedly, there was a point this year – when they scored 14 times in three games – where I started believing that I had perhaps exaggerated their deficiencies, but now that they’ve only scored four goals in their past five games, I’m fully convinced that they need to bring in a clinical, assertive center forward. Prior to their 1-1 draw with Zvezda, I thought to myself that they need to pick up the pace a bit because only grinding out 1-0 wins clearly isn’t a sustainable tactic if you want to defend your championship – it’s not rocket science, is it? – and it seems like their timidity is finally catching up with them.

One thing that struck me in this Moscow derby, was CSKA’s lack of width. There was plenty of interchange between Gaby Onguéné, Tetyana Kozyrenko, and Viktoria Shkoda, but the two forwards that stayed wide were always either sitting way too deep or, when they did get high enough, they tended to drift inside. When the latter occurred, the fullbacks failed to properly fill the vacuum that was left behind because they simply refused to push up high enough to pose a real threat, presumably due to concerns about potential counter-attacks. This meant that CSKA were pretty toothless going forward, with Loko doing a good job defending the central area. Had CSKA had even just one proper, out-and-out winger on the pitch to exploit the space, this match could have transpired very differently.

Ultimately, CSKA’s inability to carve out any high-quality chances, and Loko’s contentment with keeping it tight at the back and not throwing too many numbers forward, meant that chances were at a premium in this game. When opportunities did present themselves, it was mostly due to defensive lapses, and a fair bit of luck was involved, too. Loko’s first goal, for example, came from a cross that bounced off the bar and was tucked home by a perfectly positioned Alsu Abdullina; the second goal was equally fortunate as Alena Ruzina’s shot smacked Maria Alekseeva in the face and deflected into the back of the net.

The one positive CSKA can take from this game is that they weren’t totally outclassed. In fact, in terms of overall play, they were arguably the better team on the day, it’s just that Loko capitalized on what few chances there were in this encounter. However, that will be little consolation for the fact that last season’s champions now find themselves seven points behind their league-leading rivals and four behind Zenit. Of course, it’s only May, so there’s still plenty of time to rectify the situation, but perhaps it’s time to hit the panic button on the red and blue side of Moscow.

It’s starting to look increasingly likely that we will have a new champion in the Superliga this season. It may be a bit premature, but I would even go so far as to say that it’s Loko’s title to lose now.

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