2022 Superliga Preview

Slated to kick off on March 13, the top division of Russian women’s football, the Superliga, is set to commence against a backdrop of uncertainty and the thrums of war. Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has not only dilated the humanitarian crisis initially restricted to the Donbas to a national level but due to the ensuing international sanctions it has also reverberated and affected Russia itself; among the many victims of this conflict is football, a remarkably trivial one in the grand scheme of things, it has to be said, but a victim nonetheless.

The future of Russian football remains nebulous: in order to ensure the safety of international players and coaches, FIFA has allowed for contracts to be temporarily suspended – which Superliga players will make, or have already made, their escape I do not know; the league has, somewhat understandably, refrained from making statements concerning the war. The potential loss of sponsors and the proximity of some Russian cities, like Rostov and perhaps even Krasnodar, to the epicentre of the war adds an additional element of doubt.

A few things are certain, however: A) ten teams will compete in the Superliga this season. Neither the newly-established women’s departments at Spartak and Dynamo Moscow nor the ambitious Krylia Sovetov project will partake in the league in 2022. B) starting this season, the Superliga will have a new format; after the main double round-robin stage, the competition will be split into a top four (another double round-robin phase) and a bottom six (single round-robin). C) also starting this season, a financial incentives program will be implemented with rewards determined based on performances in the Superliga, the Youth League, and in terms of marketing. D) the Russian Football Union and Match TV have signed a broadcast deal that will see all Superliga matches live-streamed free of charge on matchtv.ru and sportbox.ru, with select games broadcast on Match Premier and Match Strana. I am not aware of any international broadcast deals. That should about clear up everything, so let’s analyze how the individual teams might fare in the strange season that is just around the corner.

The Strugglers

Rubin Kazan

The curtain had hardly been brought down on the 2021 campaign when Rubin Kazan, the side that claimed last year’s wooden spoon, began dipping into the transfer market in an attempt to rectify that horror show of a debut season. Credit where credit is due, not only did Rubin act swiftly, but they acted decisively, bringing in several very talented players. Their wholly uncompetitive roster certainly looks much better than it did at this point last year, but the Tatarstan outfit’s offseason hasn’t been without some setbacks: their Azeri internationals were some of the very few bright spots of their inaugural campaign, but unfortunately, not one but two decided to head for greener pastures after the conclusion of last season – talented attacker Vusala Seyfatdinova and defender Ayshan Ahmedova signed with Turkish side Rizespor.

On the incoming front, Rubin were quite busy: enough players were brought in to essentially make up an entirely new starting eleven. Among the new arrivals are some very interesting prospects. The most high-profile signing is arguably Ksenia Alpatova, a very talented central midfielder, whom I highlighted last year as one of the league’s understated standout performers. One criticism I had of her – or, rather, of the style of her former team, Ryazan – was that she wasn’t as influential as a player of her quality ought to be; Ryazan’s route-one, long-ball approach didn’t really suit this diminutive playmaker. At Rubin, a team that lacked expressive footballers last season, she will have the opportunity to become a real focal point.

Other intriguing acquisitions include talented 19-year-old defender Anna Fetisova (on loan from Zenit), Ukrainian serial winner Taisiya Nesterenko (from Zvezda), and Kristina Cherkasova (on loan from Lokomotiv), a like-for-like Seyfatdinova replacement, as well as striker Shwendesky Joseph, who joins from futsal team Oryol. Another player that could perhaps slot right into the side is Anna Karandashova, who arrives from CSKA where she rarely saw the field; clearly not good enough to be a starter for a top side, she could be quite a useful piece for a team like Rubin, though, either as a centre-back or midfield destroyer. Rounding out their business are some youngsters and players who, judging by their performances in recent seasons, will likely be nothing more than depth pieces: Tatyana Stepanova (from Zenit), Valeriya Khokhlova (from Rostov), Natalya Sokolova (from Krasnodar), Aleksandra Kurkina (from CSKA), and 15-year-old Arina Tsyplova (from Volga Ulyanovsk).

Taking into account the new signings and the fact that there was a noticeable uptick in form when Renat Miftakhov took the reins, what can we expect from Rubin Kazan in 2022? Well, I think it’s pretty clear that they will be more competitive this year – after all, it would be quite a feat to match the dreadful form of last season – but with that being said, I doubt that there will be an awful lot in the way of improvement concerning their final position in the table. They could conceivably close the gap to sides like Krasnodar and Chertanovo – and they may even overtake them – but they still don’t have enough overall quality to finish higher than 8th, in my opinion.

FK Krasnodar

What are Krasnodar? That’s a great question because honestly, I have no idea. Are they an ambitious club? Maybe, the women’s side does have a very nice new stadium. Are they a club that develops talent? Maybe, they have a very young squad littered with intriguing prospects. Do they have a coherent philosophy? See, this is where it gets tricky. I genuinely do not know. Perhaps the question should be phrased differently: does head coach Gamal Babaev have a coherent philosophy, a clear idea of how he wants his side to play? Now we may be getting closer to finding an answer because, judging by last season, it doesn’t seem like he does. The way Krasnodar played last year was wholly unconvincing and uninspiring. They were all over the place; sometimes they were staggeringly dull, other times, it looked like they had never played top-level football before.

Krasnodar also weren’t helped by the fact that Elena Kostareva regressed to the mean after a decent 2020 season. Indeed, most of their players looked bang average in 2021, with the exceptions of Polina Organova and Daniela Basaeva, no doubt a consequence of Babaev’s anaemic style of play. Can they turn it around in 2022? Maybe they can; their players will be a year older, a year more experienced, perhaps Babaev has developed, too. Ultimately, it remains to be seen and I honestly wouldn’t hold my breath, especially when you take into account that they haven’t strengthened their side at all. I would not be surprised to see them finish rock bottom, to be brutally honest.

Chertanovo Moscow

To say that it was a tough preseason for Chertanovo Moscow would be an understatement. The Devils lost a whole host of players, including one of their key performers in Kristina Kommissarova, who, surprisingly, decided to drop down a level by joining the fledgling Dynamo Moscow project which will start its women’s football journey in the Youth League. A couple more players departed for Dynamo, while Natalya Trofimova headed to St. Petersburg. There is one positive to take from this offseason, though: Alena Andreeva is still a Chertanovo player. I didn’t think it was possible – in fact, I was quite confident that she would sign for a bigger club – but they managed to keep a hold of her.

As is tradition at Russia’s foremost development side, the outgoing players have largely been replaced from within the club’s youth set-up. However, Chertanovo did also dip into the transfer market to bring in 21-year-old attacker Viktoria Dergousova from Ryazan. It has to be said, though, this is far from the most inspiring signing ever. Dergousova is still pretty much all potential without much tangible substance. Thus, big questions undoubtedly still linger; the only area of the pitch where Chertanovo are genuinely well-equipped is in central midfield.

Despite their call-ups to the senior national team in recent times, neither captain Yulia Bessolova nor goalkeeper Diana Ponomareva are truly convincing defensively, and then, of course, the question also remains: who will score the goals? Yes, Daria Solonovich was really impressive towards the end of last season, and yes, Olesya Berezanskaya looks to have an incredibly high ceiling, and they do still have Andreeva, too, but after losing several offensive pieces, I am slightly worried about the Devils’ attack. In conclusion, I think Chertanovo will be worse off this year than they were in 2021.

FK Yenisey

Perhaps it is due to their relative remoteness, but Yenisey, the Superliga’s sole Siberian outfit, might well be the most unassuming club in the league. They go about their business quietly, occasionally producing a good player here and there, sometimes pulling off a nice win, and seemingly always ending up in seventh place. They don’t bother anyone, they don’t make waves, they are just kinda there.

Therefore, it’s quite hard to write a season preview for the Krasnoyarsk side; you know what you’re going to get: a solid defence – now further augmented by the arrival of Ekaterina Morozova from Zenit – and a conspicuously inconspicuous attack that struggles to consistently create but always scores just enough to pick up the odd three points. Don’t get me wrong, Yenisey do have some talented players – indefatigable central midfielder Anna Morozova comes to mind – but this team thrives on being a coherent unit, a close-knit, stout collective; you likely won’t see the next Lina Yakupova or Nelli Korovkina forged at Yenisey. They are not necessarily hamstrung but certainly slightly limited in terms of potential because sometimes you need to give your creative forces free rein. That, however, is unlikely to happen, so Yenisey will be in for another passable seventh-place finish.

The Middle of the Pack

Ryazan-VDV

2021 was a weird year for Ryazan. The four-time Superliga champions had to endure plenty of personnel turnover due to their almost going out of business and it showed – they ended up in 6th, a spot behind debutants Rostov, all while playing some rather uninspiring, route-one football. This offseason, there’s been just as much turmoil albeit without all those, you know, existential worries. The biggest piece of news coming out of Ryazan was that head coach Georgiy Shebarshin decided to leave the club for CSKA’s youth team. He has been replaced by Igor Gavrilin, who knows the city well having featured for a Ryazan-based side during his playing days.

In terms of on-pitch personnel, Ryazan had to be quite busy sorting out replacements. Several players departed, chief among them Ksenia Alpatova, but some of the new arrivals look quite intriguing, including several internationals. Serbian defender Nikoleta Nikolic joined from Lithuanian side Gintra, Kazakh midfielder Karina Zhumabaykyzy left perennial domestic champions BIIK-Kazygurt for Russia, and Armenian midfielder Tatyana Dolmatova arrives from Yenisey. Moreover, two Belarusians were signed: Yana Benkevich and Polina Girchits, both coming off a decent season with Zorka-BDU in which they combined for 13 goals and 18 assists. Finally, a whole host of domestic players also joined Ryazan: Nurina Nurimanova, Olga Dyakova, Marina Andreeva, Polina Shatilova, and Yulia Lyukina.

Essentially, Ryazan will be unrecognizable from last year – whether that’s a good thing or a bad thing remains to be seen. I, for my part, am quite enthusiastic about this team, however; they’re doing some great youth work, those international signings are very exciting, and with a new coach at the helm, we might yet see a fresh, less dull approach. It could very well take them some time to get going, but considering that some teams around them, like Zvezda, also had to endure a mass exodus, Ryazan have a decent chance to potentially finish as high as fourth.

FK Rostov

The other 2021 debutants, Rostov, had a very contrasting campaign compared to their counterparts from Kazan. It took them a while to get going, but once they did, they quickly looked like an established Superliga team. Massive credit has to go to Natalya Karaseva, who created a coherent unit that, albeit quite lucky at times, performed much better than expected. Of course, they won’t have the element of surprise on their side anymore in their sophomore campaign, but fortunately for Rostov, they managed to keep the spine of their team intact – keeping hold of last year’s standout performer, Anna Peshkova, could prove to be quite the coup.

They reinforced their team with five new signings, two of whom are full-fledged internationals: Ksenia Garanina from Armenia and Belarusian Tatyana Krasnova. Additionally, former Zenit right-back Maria Digurova, another ex-Zenit player in Anna Shalimova, and, finally, Olga Pesterva, who signs her first professional contract after enjoying plenty of success at university level in her native Siberia, were also brought in. So, what can we expect from Rostov in 2022? Continuity is clearly key here, which means that we’ll likely see more of the same this season; barring a quite stunning collapse, another solid mid-table finish should be on the cards for Rostov.

Zvezda-2005 Perm

Zvezda Perm met expectations last season. The league’s record champions aren’t what they used to be and a fourth-place finish is pretty much the best they can hope for at this point. That said, it could prove to be quite tough to live up to the billing this season. Why? Well, this team will look radically different in 2022 – and not just because they decided to retouch their logo slightly. Several of Zvezda’s key performers departed, namely Nadezhda Ilinykh, Kristina Khorosheva, and Natasha Grib, with the latter retiring from football, while the others joined Lokomotiv. Those aren’t the only players to leave, either; all in all, the Perm outfit lost some seven players over the offseason.

To replace the outgoing performers, Zvezda decided to virtually raid Ryazan: Polina Shatilenya, Margarita Shirokova, Ekaterina Larina, and Ksenia Shakhova all join from the side that finished 6th last season. Rounding out their business is the loan signing of CSKA striker Lyubov Yashchenko and the acquisition of midfielder Lyubov Gudchenko from Belarusian outfit Dnepr Mogilev; both lovely signings indeed (pun very much intended). Shakhova is very talented and Gudchenko scored 26 goals in 19 matches last season – albeit in the Belarusian league where every other game seems to end 12-0 – but I wouldn’t be overly surprised if it took Zvezda a while to really get firing; after all, in Ilinykh and Grib they lost their two most decisive wingers from 2021. Fortunately, Elena Anatolyevna can still count on the ageless wonder that is Olesya Kurochkina. Ultimately, Zvezda should be in the mix for fourth again, but don’t be shocked if they don’t quite manage to attain it.

The Challengers

Zenit St. Petersburg

Zenit had a weird 2021 season. They started strong but eventually fell off a cliff towards the end of the season. Their collapse was so tragic, in fact, that they surrendered second place to a CSKA side that had an equally weird campaign – a blunder, I assumed, would cost Olga Poryadina her job. That, however, has not materialized and she will lead the St. Petersburg outfit into their third season, and, just like in their sophomore campaign, Zenit supplemented their squad with plenty of high-calibre players in order to make another charge for the title.

Undoubtedly the most exciting arrival is that of Montenegrin forward Armisa Kuč, who spent last season at Belarusian runners-up FK Minsk. Serbian defender Aleksandra Lazarevic is another international acquisition; she is joined by her former Ryazan teammates Daria Eremenkova and experienced defensive stalwart Lyubov Kipyatkova, who spent the last two years at Zvezda Perm after leaving Ryazan. Moreover, Zenit acquired tenacious central midfielder Anna Pozdeeva from CSKA, as well as Belarusian goalkeeper Natalya Voskovich and Chertanovo youngster Natalya Trofimova. That’s very good business and most of them will slot right into the starting line-up.

In terms of departures, Zenit didn’t have to cope with too much major disruption quality-wise as pretty much everyone that left or retired – like captain Ekaterina Sochneva – rarely featured consistently last season. With that said, the sheer volume of departures could prove to be a cause for concern down the line; the exits of Ekaterina Morozova, Lyudmila Shadrina (granted, she didn’t play last season), Natalya Mashina, Tatyana Morina, and Tatiana Ewodo Ekogo have left them slightly stretched thin at centre-back and centre-forward. In short, this team is undoubtedly better than last year’s but not quite as deep.

I fancy Zenit to go one better this year and finish the campaign as runners-up. Is it possible that they will give Lokomotiv a good run for their money? It certainly is, but I wouldn’t hedge my bets; the Moscow outfit is ridiculously stacked this year.

CSKA Moscow

Speaking of Moscow outfits, let’s see what CSKA might be up to this year – spoiler alert: I’m not quite as optimistic about them as I was, say, a month ago. Why? Because Nadezhda Smirnova, CSKA’s dazzling number ten, will likely miss most if not all of the campaign after suffering a serious injury in a preseason match. That is a massive blow, but it’s also a good opportunity for some of last season’s high-profile arrivals, namely Marina Kiskonen and Francisca Ordega, to finally step up, although a more like-for-like replacement would actually be youngster Tatyana Petrova, who has played that attacking midfield role to great effect before. Alternatively, Margarita Chernomyrdina could also step in; CSKA clearly have a wealth of attacking options – they added Venezuelan Mariana Speckmaier over the winter, too – so it will be interesting to see if and how Aleksandr Grigoryan will get the best out of his frontline, something that the two-time champions struggled with at times in 2021.

Good news for CSKA is that midfielder/defender Ksenia Kovalenko has a full preseason under her belt for the first time in years and that some depth pieces are back from injury and pregnancy. The Army Team won’t have a depth problem – except perhaps in midfield where Pozdeeva’s departure and Smirnova’s injury leaves them stretched somewhat thin – but I am concerned about their overall quality – or lack thereof. As mentioned, some big-name players didn’t show up last year, others, like Sh’nia Gordon, looked great but were hamstrung by indecisiveness and ineffectiveness, and if you look beyond CSKA’s first eleven, there’s a marked drop-off in quality, more so than at Lokomotiv or, arguably, even at Zenit.

This season could go one of two ways: either Gordon, Ordega, and Kiskonen find their feet and consistently contribute, or CSKA, deprived of the vital goals and assists of Smirnova, struggle to reach the level they are very well capable of reaching. I’m leaning towards the latter, I think CSKA will ultimately be overtaken by Zenit and finish third.

Lokomotiv Moscow

We can keep this preview relatively brief. Lokomotiv Moscow were utterly dominant last year, as testified by their winning the domestic treble. Will they be this dominant again in 2022? Yes, there’s no doubt in my mind. Not only did they significantly bolster their team – likely with one eye on the Champions League, which they might not even get to play in now due to the war – and they didn’t lose anyone of note. Elena Fomina brought in Nadezhda Ilinykh, Kristiana Khorosheva, Tatyana Morina, and Natalya Mashina, all decent players in their own right, even if they, with the exception of Ilinykh, might not be starting calibre for a team of Lokomotiv’s quality. I fully expect them to pick up where they left off and they’ll likely do at least the double if not another treble this season.

Final table prediction:

  1. Lokomotiv Moscow
  2. Zenit St. Petersburg
  3. CSKA Moscow
  4. Ryazan-VDV
  5. Zvezda-2005 Perm
  6. FK Rostov
  7. FK Yenisey
  8. Rubin Kazan
  9. Chertanovo Moscow
  10. FK Krasnodar

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