You don’t expect to chair a sports quiz on Valentines Day, especially in a bar full to the rafters with a heady mix of couples and singletons. Given permission to be the MC, I added a few questions that I felt might throw a few of the participants.
Here are a couple of the kickers:
Q. Who was the last Russian player to top the Premier League goalscoring charts? (A. Roman Pavlyuchenko, 2007, 14 goals)
Q. Which of the “Bronze Generation” of 2008 is still playing outside Russia? (A. Pavel Pogrebnyak, Reading FC)
In 2008 Vagner Love topped the charts with 20 goals and the Russian top flight has never seen a native at the summit since.
Aleksandr Kerzhakov dropped out of the top ten last season and this year he looks likely to be absent again, but who could front up for Russia in next month’s clash with Montenegro? With 29 goals from 88 games, the Zenit striker looks to have the national team’s goalscoring record to himself for at least a generation.
Dynamo’s Aleksandr Kokorin has six from 26 international appearances and seven this season in the league (albeit with a hat-trick in August against an unpaid FC Rostov) whilst Artem Dzyuba has two international goals and seven league goals this season.
At 23 and 26 respectively both players should have decent careers ahead of them, but it is the ‘right now’ that matters for the National Team. And right now Don Fabio needs a win in Podgorica and to do that, he needs goals.
Dynamo Moscow winger Aleksei Ionov’s form has been good this season with six league goals and he links very well with Korkorin. An all Dynamo pairing could work, or at least they would be a two of the attacking three. 26-year-old Igor Portnyagin of Rubin Kazan has yet to win a senior cap and had the usual loan merry-go-round young Russian players experience.
I first saw him in action for Gazprom Izhevsk in the 2nd Division again FC Volga Ulyanovsk and he looked like he needed a good feed. He was of the same generation (and in the same division) as Alan Dzagoev and showed potential. He was picked up by Premier big boys Rubin Kazan and his future looked bright.
Getting game time in Kazan was difficult and after three seasons of under use, off he went for 1st team experience. Since 2011 he has had seven loan moves (twice each to Spartak Nalchik and Tom Tomsk) and apart from his blistering form at neighbours Neftkhimik Nizhnekamsk in the 1st Division (16 goals from 19 matches), it was a long and tough learning curve reaching from the Caucasus in the South to Siberia before returning to the Volga. I noted him as an outside bet in a previous article (from two years ago) on Back Page Football and now would be time to give him a chance.
While there are a number of good strikers in Russia, though more often than not they are the donkeys for the gazelles. Despite most coaches being local, when club owners splash the cash on foreign strikers, they expect a return on investment. Russian strike “partners” do not develop their goalscoring skills and in the past five seasons this has come more to the fore.
Dzyuba’s elevation to the leading Russian goalscorer owes more to an attempt by Spartak coach Yakin trying to play a more direct and winning style of football, which will see him fired soon. If Dzyuba were to get into shape he would not be happy with a move to Zenit, or a loan move to Arsenal Tula as touted now, he would be heading to Germany, Spain or England to become a complete player.
Portnyagin’s team-mate, Maksim Kanunnikov has had his chance with the National Team and at 23 has time to develop, but he lacks the natural ability to be a really deadly goalscorer, at the moment. Beyond these “proven” goal scorers there is a quality gap and no sign of closing it soon.
However, with a little bravery and some foresight, the Russian Coach might do something special and ignore the clatter of agent-cum-coaches who litter the training grounds.
Terek Grozny’s Apti Akhyadov is only 21 and has scored goals at youth and reserve level. Short and stocky he is not particularly fast, but shows a knack of getting into good positions. He has Premier experience this season and would be ideal to play off a big man. Most importantly, he is fit, tough and would work to create goals for himself and others.
FC Ufa’s Dmitri Golubov I mentioned some years ago as one to watch. He was on loan with us at FC Volga Ulyanovsk and, in a young and inexperienced team, scored 15 goals in a very tough First Division. He scores goals – simple. He had been on trial with clubs in Europe in 2012 when he was looking to leave Dynamo Bryansk.
He wanted to challenge himself and went to Alania Vladikavkaz, only to not receive his salary and make only four appearances for them. Thankfully he has landed in Bashkortistan and scored 19 in 40 games for them. One of the few local players who could actually cut it in a strong European league, at 29 he is fit and can score goals.
Capello will most likely choose between a 4-3-3 or more cautious 4-1-4-1, the former would work well against Moldova. A trio of Ionov, Korkorin and Portnyagin would create chances with Ionov and Korkorin supporting the Rubin striker.
A more adventurous (which means almost completely unlikely) and positive front line of Akhyadov, Dzyuba and Golubov would break down the Moldovans through sheer size (Big Dzyuba), work-rate (Akhyadov) and clinical passing/finishing (Golubov).
Right now, this is all that’s left in the box, so to speak. Until the youth development system, the education and quality of coaches improves, Russia will be without anyone approaching Pogrebnyak or Kerzhakov – for all their weaknesses – for quite some time.