The Hidden Gems of the Superliga

The Russian women’s top flight, the Superliga, boasts plenty of high-end talent. Particularly the league’s flagship organizations, Lokomotiv and CSKA, are stacked with well-established big-name athletes like Nelli Korovkina, Marina Fedorova, and Nadezhda Smirnova. Beyond the two capital clubs, record champions Zvezda Perm and the ambitious Zenit project also have a respectable array of star players in their ranks. But there’s a lot more to the Superliga than just the big clubs. So today, we’ll take a look at some of this year’s less-heralded standout performers and precocious young prospects.

Alena Andreeva (23, Chertanovo)

Kicking us off is perhaps the biggest talent of them all, Alena Andreeva. The midfield dynamo recently played her 100th match for Chertanovo, so she’s not really an unknown quantity anymore. On the contrary, at 23, this is likely to be her last season with the Moscow club for which she made her professional debut all the way back in 2015. Considering her performances this season, she’s beyond ready to take the next step in her career.

Andreeva usually starts games deep in midfield either as part of a double pivot alongside Olga Belousova or as the lone conductor, providing some much-needed structure to Chertanovo’s often frantic build-up from the back. While her midfield partner is a relentless box-to-box destroyer, Andreeva cuts a much more composed figure, although she, too, has license to roam. Her main job, however, is to facilitate the attack from deep. Her ability to ping pinpoint passes both short and long makes her one of the most proficient playmakers in the entire league.

Her composure on the ball is second to none and it’s very rare for her to get dispossessed or be wayward with her distribution. She’s like a magnet, the ball just sticks to her, and not only is she intelligent enough to always find herself in enough space to receive the ball, but when she gets it, she has the necessary physical and technical traits to evade the opponent’s press, be it with cute flicks and shimmies like we saw multiple times against Rubin Kazan recently, or by shielding the ball with her backside.

However, she doesn’t always just sit back and spread passes, she frequently ventures forward and joins the attack, too. She has decent pace for a central midfielder and, as already mentioned, the requisite technical skills to dribble past opponents. Her offensive threat is reflected in her goalscoring, her five strikes make her the Devils’ most prolific player this season.

Andreeva’s inspired form has been the biggest reason behind Chertanovo’s minor resurgence after two less than impressive campaigns. Personally, I think it’s time for her to move on, but where she could end up is an interesting question to ponder. Obviously, there are plenty of potential options abroad – we have seen Russians go to France and Spain before. A player like her would also feel right at home in Serie A or the Frauen-Bundesliga.

As for the big teams in the Superliga, realistically she could stay in Moscow or move to St. Petersburg. Zenit and CSKA, in particular, could use someone with her skillset. The former appears to be the most sensible destination, though, because a midfield spot has been there for the taking ever since Olga Poryadina decided to move Veronika Kuropatkina into central defense. In her limited game time, Nika Belova hasn’t been able to replicate her form from last season and Zarina Sharifova hasn’t featured much either, so Andreeva looks to be the perfect solution for an ambitious side that is keen to claim their first silverware as soon as possible.

Olesya Berezanskaya (16, Chertanovo)

Staying with the Devils for now, next up is Olesya Berezanskaya. Perhaps something of a leftfield shout considering the young striker hasn’t scored for the senior side yet, but then again, she is only 16. She has mostly featured as a substitute this season, but she did recently celebrate her first starting berth, having been thrust into the playing eleven for Chertanovo’s famous upset of Zvezda Perm due to a shortage of available players. Notwithstanding her restricted game time, she already has the trappings of becoming the next prodigious prospect forged in Chertanovo’s unremitting talent factory.

A deceptively quick, lanky striker, Berezanskaya has mainly impressed with her good spatial awareness, smart runs, and her general being a nuisance for defenders this season. Unfortunately, due to the nature of Chertanovo’s play and their struggles to consistently create any kind of repeatable attacking patterns, Berezanskaya never really sees much of the ball when she features for the first team. However, when she does get a rare touch, you can tell that she has decent control and an eye for link-up play.

Rather than acting as a lone, central striker, the 16-year-old frequently drifts wide, particularly to the left, wherefrom she can cut into the half-space and drive towards goal. Considering Chertanovo’s conspicuous attacking dearth and their strikers’ inability to consistently perform at the required level as well as their self-imposed transfer restrictions, there is a real possibility that Berezanskaya could become the Devils’ starting forward next year. While the ship may have sailed for her this season – she was hooked at half time in Chertanovo’s embarrassing defeat to Rubin Kazan – writing her off already would be extremely foolish. In fact, just a few days later, during the latest international break, she scored a very impressive goal in a youth league game. She’s unquestionably a very exciting talent and one to keep an eye on, for sure.

Berezanskaya vs Zvezda (Source/neptunianka)

Anna Peshkova (18, Rostov)

Debutants Rostov have been one of the biggest surprises this year. Arguably the chief reason behind their success has been the inspired form of Anna Peshkova. The 18-year-old has chipped in with an impressive six goals this season, making her Rostov’s most dangerous player.

The winger has a habit of not dwelling on the ball for too long, meaning that she’s rather unpredictable and difficult to deal with for opponents. Be it laying the ball off quickly before moving into space, whipping in early crosses, or beating a defender and then getting a shot off, it’s unusual for Peshkova to keep hold of the ball for more than a few seconds – to a fault, as she loses the ball perhaps a bit too often for a coach’s liking. Her goal against Yenisey a few months ago was a perfect example of her haste: as the ball was played into the space behind the defense, she took just one touch and got ready to pull the trigger the moment she entered the box, drilling the ball against the inside of the post and into the net.

Her unpredictability and speed of thought are necessary assets because she’s not particularly blessed with blistering pace. Mainly utilized on either wing this year, I wouldn’t be surprised if she was eventually moved into a more central role; she possesses a skillset that could see her thrive as a ten or a withdrawn forward. It will be interesting to see what happens going forward. Taking into account the fact that this was her first season playing at this level and that none of the league’s bigger teams are desperately lacking in the winger department, I would be a tad surprised if she were to leave Rostov already.

Peshkova vs Rubin (Source)

Polina Organova (21, Krasnodar)

One of this season’s surprising standout players has been Krasnodar’s Polina Organova. The central midfielder has tallied six goals – albeit three of them have been spot kicks – despite featuring for a side that has performed well below expectations and is languishing towards the bottom of the league. While star player Elena Kostareva, like so many of her teammates, has mightily struggled for form, it has been Organova who has really stepped up and taken over the mantle as one of Krasnodar’s MVPs.

The 21-year-old’s excellent set-piece delivery has been particularly useful to a Krasnodar side that have struggled to consistently create good chances from open play. She’s not shown enough to warrant a big move, which is in large parts down to the simple fact that she doesn’t see enough of the ball by virtue of Gamal Babaev’s uninspiring style of play, but she’s definitely one to keep an eye on for the future.

Organova (center) vs Ryazan (Source)

Milena Nikitina (21, Zvezda)

There are a couple of young-ish players at record champions Zvezda Perm that deserve a mention. The likes of Natalya Grib, who’s done an adequate job of filling the massive shoes of Ekaterina Pantyukhina, or perhaps Valeriya Belaya spring to mind, but 21-year-old Milena Nikitina has caught the eye the most. After only playing a bit-part role following her move from now-defunct Torpedo Izhevsk, Nikitina has found her home at the heart of Zvezda’s defense this season.

Far from the most imposing center-back you’ve ever seen, what she lacks in size, she makes up for in tenacity and reading of the game – and she does actually boast a decent jumping range considering her height (or lack thereof). Moreover, she is a composed and confident, albeit not overly adventurous, passer of the ball, certainly a helpful trait as Zvezda usually look to build out from the back centrally. Nikitina has played a pivotal role in making Zvezda one of the stoutest defenses in the league; only Lokomotiv and CSKA have allowed fewer goals than the Perm outfit.

Nikitina vs Chertanovo (Source/neptunianka)

Ksenia Alpatova (22, Ryazan)

A diminutive box-to-box midfielder who operates mostly on the right side of a 4-3-3, Ryazan’s Ksenia Alpatova is an intriguing and rather unique prospect. Considering that she has scored a more than respectable six goals from midfield this season, you’d be forgiven to think that the 22-year-old is an all-action type player who is constantly at the heart of proceedings. That, however, couldn’t be further from the truth.

Alpatova is a stealthy footballer, quietly popping up in good positions; the offensive half-space is her preferred base of operations. She’s primarily a free option and a willing runner, rather than a creator who actively takes the game by the scruff of the neck and makes things happen. She has also been utilized as a more withdrawn outlet at the heart of that midfield trifecta, but her puny physique and generally pedestrian execution of defensive responsibilities mean that she – and, by extension, her team – can have a tough time dealing with savvy attackers, who know to exploit her deficiencies.

The next step in her development should be to become a more active participator and creator. Too often games simply pass her by, though that is mostly through no fault of her own. Ryazan are, unfortunately for her, a very direct side, who like to hit long balls out from the back, bypassing the midfield and preying on second balls. Verily, pigs will fly before Ryazan’s goalkeeper will play a short pass. However, during the second half of their recent game against Krasnodar, their 4-3-3 became less rigid – almost morphing into more of a 4-4-2 – which not only allowed Alpatova more space and freedom but also more good touches, showing what she’s capable of – good ball control, a decent passing range – when she is actually allowed to get on the ball.

Ryazan have demonstrated on multiple occasions this season that they are a team that can play expressive, free-flowing football, so perhaps Georgiy Shebarshin should consider loosening the reins a bit and departing from his rather defensive, somewhat dull, route-one style of play. Ksenia Alpatova would undoubtedly be one of the main beneficiaries of such a transfiguration.

Alpatova warding off pressure from Krasnodar players (Source)

Nigar Mirzaliyeva (19, Rubin Kazan)

I realize that it’s quite a contentious call to give a shoutout to a defender who concedes almost three goals per game, but if anyone from that dreadful – although admittedly, very young and inexperienced – Rubin Kazan side can come away from this forgettable debut season with their head held somewhat high, it is Azeri international Nigar Mirzaliyeva.

The 19-year-old is a versatile defender mainly utilized centrally. With decent athleticism and reading of the game, Mirzaliyeva is certainly an intriguing prospect. There is, of course, room for improvement in several areas of her game. For example, she can be quite naive when engaging opponents, resulting in her getting beaten too easily on occasion. Furthermore, she is wasteful, often electing to aimlessly boot the ball up the pitch instead of looking for an outlet or retaining and circulating possession. Fortunately, these are things that can be trained and polished, and at 19, there’s still more than enough time for her to hone her skills. In a more clearly defined defensive structure – and with better players around her – she could develop into a real talent.

Mirzaliyeva (left) and compatriot Vusala Seyfaddinova vs Krasnodar (Source)

Anastasia Morozova (21, Yenisey)

An all-action central midfielder, Anna Morozova is an exhilarating player. When she receives the ball, her first thought is to get it forward as quickly as possible, be it via rapid, short passing – she’s not someone who’ll hit a long switch across the pitch – or by taking it upon herself to go on a slaloming charge up the field. Defensively she is sound, too. While not conspicuously speedy over long distances, she does boast good acceleration and quick thinking, which allows her to snap into challenges and nick the ball before the opponent can react. These attributes also lend themselves well to beating a player before moving the ball on. Despite her unremarkable physique, she’s an expert in terms of ball retention as well, knowing when and how to make use of her body to shield the ball.

Her offensive predisposition can, however, also prove detrimental at times. If the ball gets lost during one of her patented ventures forward, there is space to exploit for the opposition. Yenisey, a side that values defensive solidity above all else, is usually able to absorb and deal with the ensuing pressure thanks to their unyielding back five, but if Morozova were to move to a team that isn’t as circumspect – something that will surely happen before long as she’s a supremely talented player – she will probably have to learn to restrain herself a bit.

Morozova pursued by one of last year’s standout prospects, Zenit’s Nika Belova (Source)

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