New Champions, New Coaches

It’s been a while, and an awful lot has transpired since we last checked in on the Superliga, so, with the end of the season fast approaching, I thought it was about time to give you another lowdown on the big storylines that have developed in Russia’s women’s top flight in recent weeks.

Correction: In this piece, I reference the race for the second UWCL spot on several occasions. However, unbeknownst to me at the time of writing, there is no second UWCL spot because Russia’s coefficient has deteriorated so much that it has already lost its additional place, just one season after earning it. Thus, only Lokomotiv will compete in Europe next season. Apologies for the confusion!

The Title Stays in Moscow

Over the last couple of years, the Superliga has been dominated by clubs from the capital. The 2021 season proved to be no different, although this time around, the champions aren’t wearing red and blue, but rather green and white. Lokomotiv Moscow have, at long last, won their first league title, dethroning back-to-back winners CSKA. While the latter have struggled this year, Loko have been the undisputed cream of the crop of the Russian women’s game.

In an almost unprecedented show of force, Loko, who hadn’t won silverware prior to last year, have truly stuffed their trophy cabinet over the last 12 months. This veritable avalanche of awards kicked off last December with a win over CSKA in the final of the Cup, followed by the same result in the first-ever iteration of the Supercup in the spring. Recently, Loko again went all the way in the Cup, defeating Zenit in a gripping final in Samara. In the league, too, they bested the St. Petersburg outfit to take a big leap towards claiming the championship, which was ultimately confirmed following a 3-0 win over Krasnodar.

To say that this is a deserved triumph would be an understatement. The capital club have been absolutely relentless this season, cutting through defenses with swaggering panache and dazzling nonchalance. Watching players like Marina Fedorova and Alena Ruzina bustling past defenders before scoring or setting up the brutally efficient Nelli Korovkina is a sight to behold. Of course, all of this wouldn’t be possible without a stout backline enabling the attackers to flourish: captain Anna Kozhnikova, Anna Belomyttseva, and the rest of the rearguard have only allowed 5 goals in 23 games so far this season. Overall, Loko have dropped points on just two occasions, a 0-0 draw with Zvezda Perm and a shock 1-0 loss to Yenisey.

This championship is just reward for a project that has evolved into something truly special over the past two years. Elena Fomina has built a behemoth of a team that looks nigh on unbeatable. The only true blotch on a remarkable season was their premature exit from the Champions League, a negligible low point in what has otherwise been one of the most impressive campaigns in all of European football.

A New Man at the Helm (Again)

Speaking of early Champions League departures, the other Moscow club, CSKA, have not enjoyed a particularly pleasant season. Following the resignation of head coach Maksim Zinoviev after a poor run of form, Sergey Lavrentiev was brought in to steady the ship. At one point, it looked like he had done just that, but after losing to Loko and failing to get the better of Zenit, he, too, was relieved of his duties. The new man to lead the Army Team is none other than Aleksandr Grigoryan, a man who has enjoyed nothing but success since making his first foray into women’s football back in the 1990s. Besides boasting plenty of silverware, Grigoryan is the only coach to have guided a Russian team to the final of the Champions League, doing so with Zvezda Perm in 2009.

His first game in charge really told the story of CSKA’s season. After taking a one-goal lead against Ryazan, his side endured a second half that was emblematic of their struggles this year: they first conceded an equalizer before squandering several huge chances including a penalty, and to cap off the afternoon, defensive stalwart Nevena Damjanovic was sent off. The second game proved to be much more successful, however—and there were already some minor signs of what might be to expect from this new-look CSKA.

A 1-0 away win over Rostov is not something to write home about for a team with their standards, of course, but it offered glimpses of a more familiar CSKA, you know, the one that claimed successive championships, not one that gets outplayed by Chertanovo and the like. CSKA still managed to miss several high-quality chances, but they played with much more freedom and gusto than what they had shown for large parts of this season. It was nice to see youngster Tatyana Petrova get an outing for once—despite her impressive performances last year, she has not featured much this term—yet what was even better to see was Nadezhda Smirnova finally coming into her own again, being expressive, pinging passes, and offering a proper offensive threat.

While their title defense has now officially failed, the season may not be done and dusted yet. CSKA somehow only find themselves three points off a Zenit side that have not looked good in recent weeks. With four games to go, there is still all to play for in terms of Champions League qualification. However, CSKA will have to rely on other teams to do the business over Zenit as the two won’t face each other again this season. What’s more, the St. Petersburg outfit have the easier schedule of the two, but, as they showed in their last game, that doesn’t actually mean anything.

Is this the End of the Road for Olga Poryadina?

‘What happened in their last game?’ you may ask. Well, Zenit were beaten 3-0 at home by Ryazan, taking their run of winless games to four now. In fairness, two of those four were against Loko and one was a draw with CSKA, but that is kind of the crux of the problem: Zenit do not perform well in big games. In seven fixtures against the league’s flagship Moscow sides this season, Zenit only managed to find the back of the net twice; they did not win a single one of those seven games, which, as already mentioned, also includes a loss in the Russian Cup showpiece.

It’s a damning indictment of Zenit, who, despite splashing the cash on plenty of high-profile players, are still incapable of truly competing with the league’s elite, at least head-to-head. Moreso than that, it’s an indictment of inaugural coach Olga Poryadina and her obnoxiously conservative style, particularly in important games. It’s one thing to play not to lose, it’s an entirely different thing to be made to look like relegation fodder by your direct rivals. While this may be a tad harsh considering that they never actually get blown out in these games, there have been several instances this season where they seemed completely out of their depth; especially early on in the year, they looked genuinely intimidated when going up against the likes of CSKA and Loko.

Look, this is a young organization, it’s only their sophomore year of existence, but after bringing in players like Ksenia Tsybutovich, Gabriela Grzywińska, and Anastasia Shuppo, players who know their way around consequential, title-deciding match-ups, you shouldn’t be parking the bus and holding out for draws in big games. This latest result could conceivably be the straw that breaks the camel’s back, I would not be surprised if Poryadina didn’t return for the 2022 season despite being on course for a runners-up finish and European football.

Strogino win the Second Division, Krylia Sovetov to Join the Superliga

The Superliga isn’t the only Russian women’s league where new champions have been crowned. In the second division, the 1 Liga (First League), too, we witnessed a historic title win: Moscow outfit Strogino won their first-ever championship, finishing atop the standings of the frankly confusing title-deciding tournament played out between the best five teams. Baikal finished runners-up with Krylia Sovetov winning the bronze medal. It is also the latter who have made headlines recently by going public about their intentions of joining the top flight. In an end-of-season statement, Krylia coach Galina Komarova revealed that the application process has been ongoing since April and that the Superliga’s teams are unanimously in favor of welcoming the Samara outfit into their ranks.

The city of Samara has a notably rich women’s football history. During the 1990s and early 2000s, the Russian women’s game was dominated by two clubs: Energia from Voronezh and CSK VVS from Samara. Originally founded in Kazakhstan before moving to Togliatti and eventually settling down in Samara, CSK VVS won four league titles and one cup between 1993 and 2001. They also triumphed in the 1996 edition of the Commonwealth of Independent States Cup, a competition for the cream of the crop of clubs from the former Soviet Union, where they defeated Victoria Brest in the final. A club that can lean on such a conspicuous background will certainly be a great addition to the league, and while Komarova has acknowledged that the squad needs to be strengthened significantly before they can be competitive, they already boast some very exciting talent in Anna Rudneva and Valeria Solodukhina who will be keen to impress on the big stage.

Rubin Double their Points Tally

They had to wait three months and 12 days, but Rubin Kazan, the Superliga’s bottom dwellers, have finally picked up their second league win in club history. Thanks to a strike from Azeri international Vusala Seyfatdinova, Rubin managed to upset Chertanovo, who themselves were coming off a surprise victory over Zvezda. The thing is, Rubin could’ve had more than just the one, it wasn’t a lucky punch or a fluke by any means, they genuinely had the better chances on the day.

Ultimately, however, it won’t matter because their season has been over from the second it started—hell, even in preseason it was clear that this team won’t be competitive—but they did manage to double their points tally and that should count for something, I guess? Heading into next year, this team—and the decision-makers—have a lot of soul searching and reassessing to do because even though some of their new singings—chiefly the several young Azeri internationals—have looked promising, this side is still nowhere near the required level. To be brutally honest, they look like Torpedo Izhevsk before they went bust.

Are Rostov the Surprise Package of the Season?

The answer is yes, and a resounding yes at that. While it was always evident that Rostov would fare better in their debut season than their Tatarstan counterparts, I could never have anticipated them to be as good as they’ve turned out to be—particularly 18-year-old Anna Peshkova has really impressed me. Sure, they’ve eked out plenty of close, somewhat fortunate wins, but that should take absolutely nothing away from the fact that they sit in 5th with just four games to go.

That said, it will be tough for them to keep a hold of that spot because they still have to play Zvezda, Zenit, and direct rivals Ryazan, who are snapping at their heels. Despite being six points off Rostov, Ryazan could easily make up that ground as their remaining games will see them squaring up with all of the bottom three—and they also have the head-to-head advantage against Rostov: the first game between the two ended 4-1 in their favor and the second was a 1-1 draw. Even if Rostov do end up slipping down to 6th, their inaugural season should still be considered a sweeping success.

The 2021 Superliga season is slowly coming to a conclusion and it’s fair to say that it has been an exciting campaign. Sure, now that Loko are officially the champions, we won’t get the great, title-deciding season finale when they face CSKA on the final matchday, but there could yet be a twist in the tale as this could turn out to be the decisive encounter in CSKA’s bid for European football—pipping Zenit to Champions League qualification would be quite the achievement considering how dead and buried CSKA have looked for large stretches of 2021.

There will be a couple more Superliga pieces coming out before the end of the year, including one on some of the league’s hidden talents—like Anna Peshkova—as well as an end-of-season review. Watch this space.

Advertisement

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s