2021 Superliga Season Review

Another Superliga season is in the books. Loko won their first-ever league title, two new teams joined, and it was a year full of surprises, some positive, some not so much. All things considered, though, it was another step in the right direction. Let’s recap who really impressed in 2021 and who fell flat on their face.

Lokomotiv Moscow

Player of the Season: Nelli Korovkina

After beating CSKA in the 2020 showpiece of the Russian Cup and finally getting their hands on a piece of silverware, it felt like something had shifted at Lokomotiv. It felt like they had smelled blood, that they had developed a liking for trophies. Over the course of the 2021 season, they would emphatically validate that sentiment as they tore through Russian women’s football, claiming all three domestic titles on offer, and doing so in style. With Nelli Korovkina banging them in for fun, Marina Fedorova rainbow-flicking her way past defenders, and a stout backline, Loko seemed untouchable for much of the year.

However, it wasn’t just the star players that consistently performed at the highest level, it was a team effort – and what an effort it was! Viktoria Kozlova and Elina Samoylova were dominant in midfield. Alena Ruzina enjoyed a stellar campaign out on the wing, and her counterpart, Yana Sheina, wasn’t bad either. Alsu Abdullina’s performances captured the attention of scouts from Champions League finalists Chelsea. Alina Myagkova was an unplayable steam train at left-back before heading back to college in the States – she’s now registered for the NWSL draft! I could go on and on. It can’t be said often enough: it was a truly remarkable season, certainly one of the most emphatic displays of power in all of European football.

Elena Fomina has built an exceptional team, it’s an extremely well-rounded roster of players, but this offseason could be a very interesting one for this squad. Some key players, like Korovkina and captain Anna Kozhnikova, are getting on in age, and while they’ve not yet reached Olesya Kurochkina territory in terms of experience, it wouldn’t shock me if Loko’s front office was already scouring the market for potential successors. On the face of it, this side doesn’t need strengthening, but don’t be shocked if they do end up bringing in a couple of high-profile players, especially with another season of European football on the horizon, a season, in which they’ll undoubtedly be keen to improve upon the premature exit of 2021.

CSKA Moscow

Player of the Season: Margarita Chernomyrdina

Despite ending on a high by pipping Zenit to second place, the 2021 season was, all things considered, a very strange one indeed for the team that had won the last two Superliga campaigns. For large stretches of this season, CSKA looked almost dead and buried, devoid of confidence and any idea of how to string together a series of genuinely good performances. Their mid-season collapse, although not completely unexpected (I mentioned in my season preview that CSKA could struggle in 2021), still came as a bit of a shock following their good start to the year. That slump would have far-reaching consequences. Not only did head coach Maksim Zinoviev resign in the wake of their embarrassing exit from the cup, but club president Elena Petunina eventually followed suit, only to have her resignation rejected by the Council of Shareholders!

Former Russia and Chertanovo boss Sergey Lavrentyev succeeded Zinoviev – who still works for the club now as a consultant – but his reign proved to be short-lived; he got the boot after just a couple of months in charge. He was in turn succeeded by Aleksandr Grigoryan, who has had so much success when he’s worked in women’s football in the past. Grigoryan certainly seemed to push the right buttons in those last few games of the season because CSKA played with much more freedom than they had in previous months. He also decided to sacrifice some attacking impetus for defensive solidity by telling his full-backs to dial it back a little and not venture forward much, something of a drastic departure from what was once one of the hallmarks of CSKA’s style.

There is, however, still a lot of work to be done before the Army Team can get back on their perch. Obviously, Grigoryan has only been in charge for a brief period of time, but while CSKA definitely looked promising in their games under him (compared to their previous performances), there was no sign of a clear identity or even game plan yet. The former champions were still extremely reliant on set pieces and actually really struggled to consistently carve out high-quality chances from open play, which is something that needs to be addressed in preseason. Ultimately, CSKA’s runners-up finish means little as they have nothing to show for it – except, I guess, for those silver medals that were handed out – because only the champions are rewarded with European football due to Russia’s depreciated UEFA coefficient.

In terms of individual players, this was well and truly a mixed bag of a season. While Margarita Chernomyrdina enjoyed a veritable personal renaissance, star player and captain (prior to Grigoryan’s arrival) Nadezhda Smirnova played what felt like a relatively poor campaign by her lofty standards. However, with that being said, she still put up very good numbers. Seven goals and a league-high 12 assists are nothing to scoff at; in fact, she’s second only to Nelli Korovkina in terms of combined goal involvements, and yet, it never seemed like she was ever truly at her scintillating best at any point this year.

Key forward Gabrielle Onguene, too, wasn’t consistently up to scratch, tailing off massively following a really good start to the year. On the other side of the coin, there’s Tatyana Petrova. Having been deemed surplus to requirements at the senior level by Zinoviev and Lavrentyev, she got a vote of confidence from Grigoryan as soon as he arrived and has certainly managed to pay back that trust by matching the encouraging performances that originally put her on the map last year. One feel-good story of the past season was also the long-awaited return of Ksenia Kovalenko after missing 18 months of football due to injury and pregnancy.

On the transfer front, CSKA were very hit and miss. Sh’nia Gordon has looked promising save for a lack of decisiveness and a true finishing touch, and Ukrainian forward Tetyana Kozyrenko emphatically outperformed the expectations I had of her. Moreover, both Serbian defenders, Nevena Damjanovic and Tiyana Jankovic, certainly improved the Moscow outfit’s rearguard, but the latter lost her place under Grigoryan for some reason. Other than that, CSKA’s business was pretty underwhelming. Marina Kiskonen and Francisca Ordega, both arriving with high expectations, have been disappointing signings. The latter barely featured and the former looked extremely average when she managed to get on the pitch. Most disappointing of all, however, has arguably been Viktoria Shkoda. CSKA went out of their way to prise her from Krasnodar, but every time she got on the pitch, I was left scratching my head as to why exactly they were so keen on getting her; she has not looked up to scratch at all.

CSKA’s efforts in the transfer market have left their squad quite bloated, so I wouldn’t be surprised if there was significant turnover this offseason. Anna Pozdeeva has already departed for Zenit and the likes of Lyubov Yashenko, Ekaterina Bratko, Anna Karandashova, Margarita Manuylova, and perhaps a couple more could all conceivably follow suit and pursue moves to clubs that can offer them better minutes. Overall, CSKA’s outlook on next season should be a cautiously optimistic one. The thing is, they still have a supremely talented core of players – plus a couple of people returning from injury and a very good batch of youngsters coming through (CSKA won the youth league this season) – so there’s no real need to strengthen the squad, it’s more about actually getting the best out of players like Kiskonen, Gordon, and Smirnova. How do you accomplish this? By having a proper structure, a proper idea of how to play. It will be interesting to see if Grigoryan still possesses his Midas touch or if the development of the women’s game has passed him by in recent years. A well-coached CSKA team would be a force to be reckoned with next season, that’s for sure.

Zenit St. Petersburg

Player of the Season: Ekaterina Pantyukhina

Zenit should be disappointed with themselves. Yes, they reached the final of the cup. Yes, they received a bronze medal in only their sophomore year of existence. With that being said, though, they could have had so much more. Had they not well and truly run out of steam towards the end of the campaign, they could’ve finished as high as second. No, they should – should! – have finished as runners-up considering just how bad CSKA were for parts of the year. The St. Petersburg outfit had second place pretty much wrapped up by the end of the summer – and then they just threw it away. They blew it! Like I said earlier, though, it wouldn’t actually have mattered as second isn’t enough for European football – and third is still a very good finish for them, mind – but still, the point stands, this should never have happened.

Another worrying thing, besides their embarrassing form to close out the year, were their performances in big games. They did not once manage to beat either of their direct competitors from Moscow in no less than seven attempts. And they only scored twice in those seven games, too. That’s not good enough if you want to challenge for a championship. One of the main reasons behind this was undoubtedly coach Olga Poryadina’s overly cautious approach in those main event fixtures. Another one – and this is true for the whole season – was simply the fact that some of their big performers rarely showed up. All year, I’ve expressed my disappointment in Polish international Gabriela Grzywińska, but it wasn’t just her; Lina Yakupova had a relatively poor season, as well, and that’s now two years in a row that she’s struggled to hit the heights that she is very well capable of hitting.

Of course, it’s not all doom and gloom. Ana Dias and Ekaterina Pantyukhina proved to be great additions, although the former did struggle to replicate her early-season form later on. Moreover, it was nice to see Nika Belova get back into the team for the second half of the season. She’s not quite been as spectacular as she was occasionally last year, but she’ll always be a solid contributor.

For me, the biggest question mark about preseason and, by extension, next season is the fate of Olga Poryadina. Will she stay or will she go? I’ve been pretty confident over these last few months that Zenit will part with her, but the fact that they’ve still not announced anything seems to almost suggest that she might very well stay on for another year. If that is indeed the case, I don’t see how they’ll be able to mount a serious title challenge in 2022, even if they go out and bring in more high-profile players. It really does reek of a managerial issue, not of a personnel one. Zenit certainly looked – and played – like a group of players that had lost faith in their coach in the dying moments of the season.

Zvezda-2005 Perm

Player of the Season: Olesya Kurochkina

The 2021 season was one of consistency and meeting expectations as far as Zvezda Perm are concerned. With the onset of a new, Moscow-dominated era in the Superliga, the division’s record champions have been relegated to a mere peripheral role in the title race. They are still a good team, of course, just not good enough to compete with the glitz and glamour of the capital. Even the fledgling Zenit project has now overtaken the former Champions League finalists in terms of league position – they even snatched one of their most important players in Ekaterina Pantyukhina last winter! The fact that 38-year-old Olesya Kurochkina is still their most important player is as much testament to her longevity and excellence as it is proof of Zvezda’s decline.

There’s not much to say about Zvezda’s season, to be honest. They did what they were expected to do: finish fourth. Kurochkina chipped in with 11 goals, Natalya Grib proved to be an adequate though not necessarily equal replacement for Pantyukhina, and Anna Akimova is still a baller. In short: we didn’t learn anything about this Zvezda team that we didn’t already know. They had a decent season, but there was an ever so slight yet still very noticeable decline compared to last year and that’s reflected in them slipping from third to fourth. The club has announced that quite a few of their players are leaving – including Grib, who has retired, and star player Nadezhda Ilynikh – so next season could be quite the slog for this once-great side.

FK Rostov

Player of the Season: Anna Peshkova

The 2021 Superliga season saw two women’s football debuts: Rostov and Rubin Kazan. Fair to say that the two newbies experienced very contrasting campaigns. The better of the two, FK Rostov, was by far and away the biggest (positive) surprise of 2021 – and they certainly exceeded any and all expectations I had of them. Yes, I was fairly confident that they would be better than their Tatarstan counterparts, but never could I have imagined that they would end up in fifth, ahead of the likes of Ryazan and Krasnodar.

To be clear, just because this was unexpected doesn’t mean that it was a fluke. It was anything but. Admittedly, it took them a bit of time to acclimatize to life in the top flight – as was to be expected – but once they found their groove, they didn’t look like a team that didn’t yet exist until 12 months ago. 18-year-old Anna Peshkova particularly caught the attention with her impressive performances, racking up six goals and seven assists in her first-ever season playing top-level football.

Natalya Karaseva has put in place a firm foundation from which Rostov can operate for the foreseeable future. Of course, they’re not going to challenge for a title anytime soon, but silverware shouldn’t be their goal anyway. Their goal for the next few seasons should be to cement that solid spot in the upper reaches of mid-table. That’s what a club of Rostov’s stature should aim to achieve.

Ryazan-VDV

Player of the Season: Ksenia Shakhova

It’s been a tumultuous 12 months for Ryazan. The four-time champions were on the verge of liquidation around this time last year, but were thankfully bailed out at the last minute. However, because of that chaos, they’ve had to cope with plenty of personnel turnover – and, according to reports, they will have to do so yet again this winter. They’ve already lost two players, including Ksenia Alpatova, who’s coming off a great season; she decided to make the surprising switch to Rubin Kazan.

In terms of on-pitch affairs, Ryazan weren’t particularly impressive in 2021, mostly because of said player turnover, although coach Georgiy Shebarshin also has to share in some of the blame with his exceedingly cautious approach. As mentioned, Ksenia Alpatova was one of the few bright spots of the season, as was Ksenia Shakhova. Other than that, it was a season to forget for the last non-Moscow team to win the Superliga. Will next year be any different? I highly doubt it, seeing as though they will have to rebuild their team once again in the upcoming transfer window.

FK Yenisey

Player of the Season: Valentina Shukova

What’s there to say about Yenisey? In my season preview, I wrote the following: “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?” I guess after another seventh-place finish – despite there being two more teams in the league – we can now conclusively answer this question with ‘yes’.

Don’t get me wrong, they weren’t terrible – hell, they were the only side to beat Lokomotiv when results still mattered – but they’re just kinda there. The Krasnoyarsk outfit is…a Superliga team; that’s all you can really say about them. They’re not a good team, nor are they dreadful, they’re just exceptionally unremarkable. They’re stagnant, too, there’s no real development. Yes, they occasionally produce a decent talent, like Nika Belova or Anna Morozova, but it’s not their ‘thing’, you know, it’s not their claim to fame like it is for Chertanovo. As brutal as it might sound, Yenisey are essentially there to make up the numbers. 2021 was an unremarkable season from an unremarkable team.

Chertanovo Moscow

Player of the Season: Alena Andreeva

Chertanovo had a pretty weird season. There were a few points throughout the year where they looked like a genuinely good team. In fact, overall, this season was a massive improvement on their recent campaigns. However – and this is an emphatic ‘however’ – there were also times where they fell back into the same traps that cost them so dearly the last two years. So, while 2021 had the trappings of being a pretty good season at times, ultimately, it wasn’t, it was an okay season if we’re being generous.

The biggest positives to come out of this year are certainly that they were able to cope with the departure of longtime head coach Sergey Lavrentyev quite well – credit to new manager Vasiliy Marunyak – and that Alena Andreeva managed to consistently showcase what a special talent she is. Moreover, towards the end of the campaign, young striker Darya Solonovich impressed, and there’s another talented teenage forward in the form of 17-year-old Olesya Berezanskaya waiting in the wings, too.

When reflecting on the bygone season, you have to consider who we’re talking about here and contextualize it: this is Chertanovo, their primary goal isn’t to rack up silverware – or even points! – they’re here, in the final analysis, to develop young players – and they achieve that goal year upon year with ruthless efficiency. You also have to take into account that Kristina Komissarova, one of their key players, missed pretty much the entire campaign through injury. So, was it a good season? No. Was it a bad season, then? Weirdly, also no.

FK Krasnodar

Player of the Season: Polina Organova

If Rostov were the biggest positive surprise of the 2021 season, then Krasnodar are the polar opposite. Boy, was this a dreadful year. I’m a firm believer that a coach should be given time to implement their ideas, but how Gamal Babaev is still in charge is completely beyond me. Krasnodar were horrendous, unwatchable at times. To give them some benefit of the doubt, they lost one of their better players (Yana Chub to Rostov) before the season started and they are a pretty young team, but there’s so much talent in that side that it’s almost criminal to have them play such utter dross. They finished 13 points behind Chertanovo! 13!!!

My biggest question is: what happened to Elena Kostareva? Like, where even is she and what have you done to her? She was one of the most exhilarating players of 2020, but in 2021, she was nothing more than a ghost, a shadow of her former self. Polina Organova and Daniela Basaeva were pretty much the only players on that roster that didn’t look completely lost this season. That’s quite the feat. Fair enough, Krasnodar have a very nice new stadium now, but that’s about the only positive you can take from this year. There needs to be massive improvement next season, but don’t hold your breath, folks.

Rubin Kazan

Player of the Season: ???

Rubin Kazan were, well, not very good in 2021. In fact, the debutants were comically bad, just hilariously terrible. I do, however, feel for the players because this was obvious from the very start – this season was like a protracted England vs. Latvia. Even in preseason, it was clearly evident that this team would be unable to compete at this level – and that eventually came to pass.

But, for as bad as they were in 2021, there is a massive positive to take: there was a noticeable uptick in form following Renat Miftakhov’s appointment as head coach. Okay, they got smashed on the final day by Ryazan, but that felt almost like an outlier – not to mention that quite of few of the goals they shipped that day were worldies in the truest sense of the word. Anyway, the season is over now and it’s time for them to look ahead and figure out a way of preventing this from happening again. They’ve already announced the signings of Ksenia Alpatova, Taisiya Nesterneko, Valeria Khoklova, and Natalia Sokolova. Alpatova and Nesterenko are great additions, but the jury is still very much out on Khokhlova and Sokolova. While certainly a start, there needs to be much more in the way of transfer business if Rubin are to become a competitive Superliga side.

Golden Boot & Player of the Season: Nelli Korovkina

20 goals in 23 games, need I say more? Nelli Korovkina is an absolute machine of a player. Perhaps the most remarkable thing besides her sheer efficiency is the fact that she doesn’t even boast the most impressive physique, she’s a very diminutive player. Her goals don’t come about through physicality, it’s all intelligent movement and ludicrous accuracy.

Young Player of the Season: Anna Peshkova

Rostov’s Anna Peshkova burst onto the scene with six goals and seven assists in her first-ever Superliga season. A truly outstanding output for an 18-year-old. If the tricky winger can keep this form up, a move to a bigger side will soon beckon. If you want to read more about Peshkova, check out this piece I wrote about 2021’s less-heralded standout players.

Signing of the Season: Ekaterina Pantyukhina

Just like there wasn’t much competition when Marina Fedorova won it last season, there isn’t much for Ekaterina Pantyukhina either – other than maybe her teammate Ana Dias had she been a bit more consistent. The 28-year-old winger racked up a respectable five goals and six assists over the course of the season. She can be an absolute nuisance for opposing players – both from open play and with her wicked set-piece delivery – and she’s one of the few players in the league not afraid to take people on with a dribble; she’s truly a joy to watch.

Team of the Season:

Goalkeeper: Viktoria Nosenko

I was somewhat reluctant to give the spot to Loko’s Viktoria Nosenko because there’s been a lot of chopping and changing in their goal and she lost her starting spot towards the end of the season following the arrival of national team goalkeeper Tatyana Shcherbak. However, you just can’t ignore the fact that she only conceded four goals in 18 games – and there’s also simply no other obvious candidate!

Defenders: Anna Belomyttseva, Anna Kozhnikova, Alsu Abdullina

Loko captain Anna Kozhnikova and her partner in crime, Anna Belomyttseva, formed a nigh on unbreachable centre-back partnership, while Alsu Abdullina stormed up and down the left flank in typical Alsu Abdullina fashion, showcasing her versatility both as a defender and attacker.

(Yes, I realize that this is quite a boring selection, but Loko were just too defensively solid to consider anyone else. Unfortunately, this will be a trend throughout this TOTS due to Loko’s sheer dominance in 2021)

Midfielders: Viktoria Kozlova, Margarita Chernomyrdina, Nadezhda Smirnova, Marina Fedorova

It’s quite an offensive midfield, but I believe that Viktoria Kozlova could offer enough in the way of defensive stability. Either way, all four of these midfielders/wingers had good to great seasons for their respective clubs, but I’ve been particularly impressed by the sheer relentlessness of Marina Fedorova. Even though Nadezhda Smirnova put up slightly better numbers, in terms of actual performances, Fedorova was much more impressive.

Forwards: Alena Ruzina, Gaby Onguene, Nelli Korovkina

Loko’s Alena Ruzina really came into her own in 2021. The 22-year-old’s very impressive nine goals and six assists actually – and somewhat surprisingly – put her above Marina Fedorova in terms of combined goal contributions. Gaby Onguene, although not consistently at her best, still recorded enough goals (11) to warrant inclusion. The Korovkina selection obviously speaks for itself.

Honourable mentions: Elina Samoylova, Olesya Kurochkina, Ekaterina Pantyukhina, Yulia Slesarchik, Ksenia Tsybutovich, Anna Peshkova, and Nevena Damjanovic

Let’s hope that the 2022 season can be just as, if not more, exciting as this one – perhaps we’ll even see some new teams in the Superliga next year (looking at you Krylya Sovetov!)

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