Eight RPL Players in need of a Big 2019

With the long winter hibernation having ended, the second half of the 2018-19 RPL season is upon us. For some players, 2018 was not the best year and 2019 could potentially act as a make or break season. Here are eight players in need of a big year in 2019.

1. Sardar Azmoun

Given the length of time he has been around as a highly-touted prospect for the future, it is incredible to think that Sardar Azmoun is still only 24 years old. For years at both Rubin Kazan in two spells and Rostov, the Iranian has been tipped to become one of the RPL’s greatest players and win a move to one of the big Western European leagues.

Yet one gets the feeling that Azmoun has not achieved as much as he promised. His highest goal return in Russian football over a single season is just 9 goals in the 2015-16 season when Rostov came within a whisker of winning the RPL title. In 155 games in Russian football since debuting in 2013-14 season, he scored 42 goals in 155 RPL games and recorded 20 assists, according to Transfermarkt.

These are not terrible stats, but with a player of his talent, it should be higher. Azmoun gives the impression of a player who on the odd occasion shows glimpses of his talent but it is too infrequent and he needs to show a higher level of consistency. In his defence, at both Rubin and Rostov, Azmoun has played in predominantly defensive sides.

However, from now on there are no more excuses for Azmoun. Armed with the vast funds from the sale of Leandro Paredes to PSG, Zenit splashed out GBP 10.8 million in the winter window to acquire the services of Azmoun from Rubin. Azmoun now no longer has the excuse of not playing alongside high calibre players nor playing in a primarily defensive side. When a player turns 23/24, they are beyond the age of being a young prospect who needs time and patience to develop. Azmoun, 24, must now start delivering on that promise with his new team.

2. Aleksandr Tashaev

2017-18 was the breakthrough season for Aleksandr Tashaev at Dinamo Moscow where his 7 goals and 7 assists in 27 RPL games saw him nearly win a place on the Sbornaya squad for the 2018 World Cup. It also attracted the attention of Dinamo’s rivals Spartak who signed the winger for what seemed like a bargain fee of GBP 1.35 million prior to the 2018-19 season.

However, Tashaev has experienced the other side of football since joining Spartak. During the first half of the 2018-19 RPL season, Tashaev featured in 8 times for Spartak, completing 90 minutes only once in a 1-0 home win against Anzhi in Round 3 of the RPL. Tashaev has also contributed no goals and no assists in these games. In both the Champions League Qualifiers, Europa League and Russian Cup, Tashaev also has had a tough time with only 7 appearances, 1 assist and no goals.

The 24-year-old truly is Spartak’s Stranger in Moscow as both Massimo Carrera and Carrera’s successor at Spartak, Oleg Kononov have barely used the winger all season. Tashaev is still a talented player and needed to impress in the mid-season winter break friendlies in order to force his way back into contention at the Red-Whites. Tashaev needs a good start to 2019, otherwise, his dream move to Spartak is in danger of becoming a nightmare and he may need to find himself a new club in the summer.

3. Aleksandr Selikhov

Whilst Russia is struggling for depth in certain positions for players at present, goalkeeper is an area where the national team have a strong level of depth. Igor Akinfeev, Andrey Lunev, Guilherme, Stantislav Kritsyuk, Anton Shunin and Ivan Konovalov are all established custodians between the sticks for their clubs.

It is easy as well to forget one name that is not on that list, Aleksandr Selikhov. Signed by Spartak from Amkar Perm during the 2016-17 winter transfer window, Selikhov established himself as number one keeper for a large portion of the 2017-18 season making 21 league appearances and also impressing in Spartak’s Champions League games. However, in May 2018 disaster struck for Selikhov as he sustained an Achilles Tendon injury which ruled him out until the start of 2019 and the 2018 World Cup.

Selikhov is now back fit for Spartak, however, faces a battle to reclaim the number one goalkeeping jersey at Spartak. In Selikhov’s absence, 20 year-old Spartak academy product Aleksandr Maksimenko impressed as regular starter and a fascinating battle now looks set to reign for who long-term will be Spartak’s number 1 keeper. One feels the loser of this battle make seek a new club sooner rather than later.

4. Roman Eremenko

In October 2016, life was good for Roman Eremenko. The Moscow-born Finnish international was one of the star players in the RPL for CSKA Moscow after previously impressing at Ukrainian side Dynamo Kiev and Rubin Kazan.

Then disaster struck, an A test sample provided by Eremenko tested positive for Cocaine and its metabolites. After a month long investigation into the sample results, Eremenko was in November 2018 handed a two year ban from football, backdated to October 2016, the original date of the positive test. Eremenko was instantly released by CSKA and his career had turned upside down.

Upon the expiry of his ban, Eremenko controversially signed for CSKA’s rivals Spartak and from October last year until the winter break, Eremenko failed to impress at Spartak with no goals or assists in 7 games in all competitions. To no surprise, Spartak chose to release Eremenko during their winter break. It did not take long for Eremenko to find himself a club however, and he has signed an 18 month contract with FK Rostov.

At 31, Eremenko is in the last chance saloon and urgently needs a strong 2019 to revive his once promising career. With Rostov being pillaged of midfield talent during the Winter transfer window with star midfielder Ayaz Guliev being purchased by Spartak, Eremenko will not need worry about a fight for regular playing time. Can Eremenko take this opportunity handed to him and re-establish himself as one of the RPL’s best midfielders?

5. Claudio Marchisio

Whilst Zenit did not venture into the summer transfer window, the one signing the club did make certainly stood out. On 4th September, the club signed 32-year-old Italian international midfielder Claudio Marchisio on a 2-year contract after his release from Juventus. It was a signing lauded as a real coup for the RPL when news about it broke.

Marchisio however, has underwhelmed a bit since arriving in Piter, In 9 RPL games, Marchisio has contributed 2 goals, not poor statistics by any stretch for a box-to-box midfielder. However, when looking at Marchisio’s all-around game as a box-to-box player, it is fair to say many RPL fans were expecting more. This has led to fears that the frequent injuries the Italian suffered during his last two seasons at Juventus may hamper his chances of shining in St Petersburg.

2019, therefore is a big year for Marchisio, he now has had a full mid-season preparation behind him as his summer was interrupted by him searching for a new club after his release by Juve. The onus is now on him to rediscover the form that made him a hero amongst the Bianconeri faithful in Italy and drive Zenit to a first title in 4 seasons.

6. Benedikt Howedes

Late in the 2018 summer transfer window, defending champions Lokomotiv landed what many seemed as a coup with the signing of German international defender for a fee of GBP 4.5 million on a four-year contract from Schalke 04. Many cited Lokomotiv Sporting director Erik Stoffelshaus as being key to brokering the transfer as he helped bring Howedes through the academy at Schalke during his time working at the club.

However, Howedes has endured a difficult time since arriving in Moscow, his performances have been a disappointment and much more was expected of a player with vast Bundesliga and Champions League experience. It is also worth mentioning that Howedes is a 44 cap German International and a 2014 World Cup champion, playing every minute of Die Mannschaft’s triumph in Brazil.

2019 is therefore like the aforementioned Marchisio a massive year for 30 year-old Howedes’ career. Stoffelshaus, the man seen as influential in his decision to join Lokomotiv recently resigned from his role as Loko’s Sporting Director and is being linked to a similar role at Manchester United. Therefore with a strong figure in Howedes’ career no longer being alongside him, it will be fascinating to see if he can rediscover the form which made him one of the best Bundesliga defenders at Lokomotiv.

7. Elmir Naibullin

23-year-old left back Elmir Naibullin has for many years tipped to be a star in the RPL and for the Sbornaya. In the winter transfer window of 2017-18, Naibullin signed a four and a half year contract at Zenit following two and a half seasons at Rubin. All seemed set up for Naibullin to fulfil the long-touted potential following the departure of Zenit’s long-serving left back Italian Domenico Criscito.

It all started well in 2018-19 for Naibullin, in Zenit’s first 9 league matches and 3 of Zenit’s first 4 Europa League group stage matches, Naibullin was regular left-back and often completed 90 minutes. Yet, after Zenit’s first league defeat of the season on Matchday 9 against Anzhi, Naibullin did not feature again in the league for Zenit and was relegated to the bench. Reserve fullback Yevgeni Chernov was often picked ahead of Naibullin and 2018 finished on a whimper for the young fullback.

2019 is therefore a big year for Naibullin at Zenit. The aforementioned Chernov who himself failed to impress in Naibullin”s relegation to the bench has now been let go by Zenit. Naibullin’s 2019 did not get off to a good start as he put in a poor performance in Zenit’s Europa League last 32 first leg away 1-0 defeat against Turkish side Fenerbahce. Things will need to get better quickly as Zenit may look to strengthen the fullback position this summer.

8. Uros Spajic

The summer of 2018 saw the departure of one of the RPL and Krasnodar’s best defenders in recent years when Swede Andreas Granqvist returned to Sweden to finish his career with Helsingborgs. With big shoes to fill, Krasnodar decided to splash out a transfer fee of GBP 5.4 million to bring Serbian Uros Spajic to the club from Belgian club Anderlecht. With a vast amount of experience playing for both Anderlecht and French Ligue 1 side Toulouse FC, many tipped Spajic to be a fine signing and fill the void left by Granqvist.

However, the 26-year old Serb has so far been a bit of a disappointment in Southern Russia. His performances have been erratic and inconsistent considering the big transfer fee paid for his services. Spajiic’s 31-year-old central defensive team-mate, Belarusian Aleksandr Martynovich, has been one of the best defenders in the RPL over the last 12 months and has far out-performed the big reputation Spajic.

Spajic to his credit did put in a strong defensive performance in his first game of 2019 so far in Krasnodar’s 0-0 draw against Bayer Leverkusen in the first leg of their Europa League last 32 tie. More of the same is now needed by the Serb for the remainder of the season and beyond. Krasnodar, just 11 years after their foundation have a golden opportunity to not just qualify for the Champions League for the first time in their history but become Russian Premier League champions. To achieve this, Spajic will need to discover the form which made Granqvist one of the best RPL defenders.


Author: Richard Pike

Wigan Athletic season ticket holder whose first memories of Russian football were TV highlights of Spartak’s 4-1 victory against Arsenal in the 2000-01 Champions League. Huge fan of the Russian Premier League, other mid-ranking European leagues and the English Football League

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