RFN Top 50 2018: 3-1

As 2018 has turned into 2019, it is time for an annual tradition on Russian Football News: The RFN Top 50. We rank the 50 best players in the Russian Premier Liga (RPL) in 2018 by their performances throughout the year, think of it as the RFN Ballon d’Or, and we finish with the prestigious top three.

This is the fourth year in our annual tradition, and definitely, the hardest yet, let us know who you would have picked, and we hope you enjoy it.

READ MORE: RFN TOP 50 2017

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Russian Football News

3. Leandro Paredes (Midfielder, Zenit St Petersburg) +14

Although the Argentinian midfielder has now moved onto PSG in a big-money transfer, all votes were cast before Paredes made the move, and therefore takes his place high on this list. Arguably on talent alone he has been the finest player to grace the league since Quincy Promes’ departure from Spartak to Sevilla.

Paredes was wrongly used by Roberto Mancini, forced into a much deeper role than he should be, yet still starred in an otherwise very disappointing season for Zenit. After the winter break, he really began to hit top form, helping Zenit recover from the horrendous winter curse in order to qualify for the Europa League again. Paredes has the highest Instat index of all players in the RPL in 2018.

Paredes’ best goal away to Real Sociedad in the Europa League, in which he begins and finishes the wonderful move | Instat

Away from the stats, however, he truly is a midfield marvel and has it all. Though Mancini utilised him far too deep, Paredes can play anywhere in the middle, and in any role – be it as a tough-tackling ball winner, deep-lying playmaker, box-to-box general or farther forward as a 10. His best role is as a deep-lying playmaker in the typical six role, where he can use his astounding vision, long & short passing and creativity to dominate play, dictate the tempo of a game and find that key pass to unlock an opposition defence.

Farther forwards, he is a genuine set-piece specialist, with fine delivery from corners, a wicked free-kick and cool penalty all part of his vast armoury. In 2018 alone, he scored or assisted 17 times in 6 games for Zenit, including long-range curlers, well-crafted free-kicks and the brilliant goal in the video above.

READ MORE: Leandro Paredes to PSG – Catastrophic Loss, or Necessary Sacrifice?

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Russian Football News

2. Mario Fernandes (Defender, CSKA Moscow) +9

Mario Fernandes has been, of the four Russian-naturalised Brazilians, caused the least consternation amidst fans. Though he can’t speak a word of Russian unlike either Ari or Guilherme, Fernandes is simply that good. Easily the best defender in the league, he has been for some while and is now the highest-rated defender on the RFN Top 50 for two years in a row.

Over the years, Mario has been linked with various moves away to some of Europe’s top clubs, most notably Barcelona – the validity of these reports are unsubstantiated and unlikely, but it till speaks volumes to the mans ability as a footballer. For years, even when CSKA couldn’t hope in hell to either pick up a clean sheet or a victory in Europe, he stood above his peers and never looked out of place.

His career thus far has been anything but easy; he suffered from depression in his late teens, faced huge issues acclimatising to the culture shock of moving from Brazil to Russia at a young age and found it hard living up to the lofty transfer fee (reported as anywhere from €10.5-16m).

Though not for CSKA, Mario proved his attacking prowess with this lovely move against Egypt in the WC | Instat

However, year-on-year he has batted these struggles aside, overcome the difficulties and adapted into the most proficient defender in the league, capable of playing as a vital two-way wing-back and arguably the most likely Russian to make the big step-up.

He earned Russian citizenship in 2016, but had to wait until April 2017 to play for the Sbornaya – the five-year anniversary of him arriving in the country, and is now one of the first names on the team sheet after impressing heavily during the 2018 WC campaign.

READ MORE: Russia’s Unlikely World Cup Heroes

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Russian Football News

1. Artem Dzyuba (Forward, Zenit St Petersburg) +37

The highest mover on this list, and new man at the top of the pile is bonafide national treasure Artem Dzyuba. He may not be the most techincally gifted footballer on this list, but his importance, impact and sheer turn-around in fortunes is genuinely the stuff of Hollywood.

Last summer, he saw himself frozen out at Zenit by Roberto Mancini and largely ignored in the national team too by Stani Cherchesov. New Argentinian signing Seba Driussi was heralded to be the next big thing to lead Zenit’s line alongside reforming hero Aleksandr Kokorin, while Fedor Smolov had just finished his second consecutive season as RPL top scorer at Krasnodar. The then 28-year-old had cemented his position as Sbornaya star man and vice-captain.

Benched, training with the reserves at times and utterly bereft of confidence, Dzyuba had a horrendously poor late 2017, seeing him drop from third in the 2016 Top 50 to 38th last year. However, the big man had other ideas.

He was willing to go on loan to Arsenal Tula for the first-half of 2018, but faced stiff competition from the in-form and fellow Zenit loanee Luka Djordjevic. Quite frankly, many commentators (with myself included) had predicted this to be the start of Dzyuba’s inevitable decline from the Russian elite. He hit back, by scoring seven goals and picking up three assists in just ten starts. This form down in Tula convinced Stani to call Dzyubinho up to the WC squad – but he barely made it and also had to rely on an unfortuante ACL injury to key player Kokorin.

READ MORE: The Evolution Of Artem Dzyuba

Yet still Smolov was the talk of Moscow, and Sbornaya’s star. Paraded throughout the country as the man to lead the regeneration of Russian football, he appeared on GQ, Vanity Fair, Sport-Express, SovSport, Channel 1 and MatchTV almost constantly until the build-up to the Saudi Arabia game. On paper, he possessed the perfect story; a turn-around in fortunes after casting off his moniker as a failed wonderkid, headline-grabbing former partners such as Viktoria Lopyreva, and the right looks.

However, sometimes good things come to those who wait, suffer, and simply want it more. Now and again the Gods of football decide that a man has suffered for too long, and present him with a chance to take his opportunity. Dzyuba replaced the ineffective Smolov on the 70th-minute mark, this was his chance. His first involvement came just 13 seconds later. He peeled off the back of Omar Hawsawi in the penalty box and guided Aleksandr Golovin’s perfectly-floated ball into the bottom right-hand corner. He ran off, bursting with pride and passion, roared to the crowd and saluted the nation.

He continued to inspire Russia to their greatest sporting moment since the fall of the Berlin Wall with another two goals in the tournament itself. The celebration has become eponymous and he became a hero almost instantaneously.

He now leads the line for Zenit and his position is unrivalled. This season Dzyuba has scored ten goals in 22 games, leading Zenit to the top of the RPL, and has also helped give his side a genuinely realistic chance of reaching the Europa League quarter-finals.

Dzyuba is proud, passionate, and supremely talented. Dzyuba is a microcosm of the World Cup. Dzyuba is the footballing embodiment of Russia as a nation.

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Author: James Nickels

Born and raised in South Shields, the direct mid-point between Sunderland and Newcastle in North-East England during an era of sustained success and European football for the Magpies, while the Black Cats floundered in the lower divisions, so naturally I decided to support Sunderland. I’ve developed an interest in Russian football over the last decade or so, but it piqued while studying for my Masters’ Degree in Russian and Soviet History, and I’ve been hooked by Spartak Moscow ever since. Considers Eduard Streltsov the best of his generation, and a fond proponent of his repatriation.

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