2010 RPL Preview: The 15 Finest Defenders in the Russian Premier League
There's an old saying that carries true through many sports: Defense wins championships.
In the Russian Premier League, this was absolutely no different. Rubin Kazan won their second consecutive title, and to nobody's surprise, they boasted the best defense in the league. Conceding only 0.7 goals per game, Rubin's back line excellence didn't just stop there.
They stood up to the world's most potent offense in Barcelona and only allowed one goal in 180 minutes of play.
Like Rubin, many Russian teams take great pride in their defense. Some of the world's best defenders have roots in the Russian Premier League, including Nemanja Vidic (Spartak Moscow), Branislav Ivanovic (Lokomotiv Moscow) and Martin Skrtel (Zenit St. Petersburg).
In 2010, there are no shortages of fine defenders. Let's take a look.
15. Renat Yanbaev, Lokomotiv Moscow
Left/Right Back; 1.78m (5'10"); 25 years old; Krasnodar, Russia
As a natural left-footed defender, Yanbaev saw quite a bit of time with the Russian national team during World Cup qualifying.
Although he has mostly played the same role with Lokomotiv, Yuri Semin hasn't been afraid to put him at right back if necessary.
He is a very offensive-minded defender that hasn't yet passed up a good opportunity to get forward. Although his defending has been exposed in the past by quality strikers like Craig Bellamy, Vagner Love, or Alejandro Dominguez, he also makes up for his shortcomings with a combination of speed and footwork that are a rare find in a defender.
He has never scored a goal for Lokomotiv however, after posting an impressive goals-per-game ratio with his hometown club Kuban Krasnodar. But that will hardly stop him from getting forward to provide service to the men up front or from having a go at goal himself.
14. Alexandru Epureanu, Dinamo Moscow
Center back; 1.89m (6'2"); 23 years old; Chisinau, Moldova
Epureanu has been a bit of a hidden treasure since moving to the Russian Premier League. The Moldovan international signed on with now-bankrupt club FC Moscow before the 2007 season and established himself as a starting center back ever since.
This winter, he finally made the move to a bigger club when he joined Dynamo Moscow.
His brand of defense will be more than welcome playing alongside Denis Kolodin. Epureanu has developed into a no-nonsense central defender with a great header but also a knack for avoiding discipline. Despite playing a physical style, he was only carded five times in 2009.
He won't be called upon to provide a whole lot of offense, since the aforementioned Kolodin will cover that. But nevertheless, he is a force inside the box to score.
But the most important aspect of his game is the consistency. He has played over 23 matches every season with FC Moscow and his good health will be needed if Dynamo is to return to European play.
13. Akes da Costa Goore, Alania Vladikavkaz
Left back; 1.74m (5'8"); 25 years old; Daoukro, Ivory Coast
Goore, also known simply as "Dacosta", will be playing for his third different Russian club in three years. After the fold of FC Moscow, he signed on with newly-promoted Alania.
Dacosta has never had the benefit of playing for a truly outstanding team, but he sure did his best to make the Caps into a formidable defense. He proved again and again that he could not only defend against the best players Russia had, but he could do it well.
Playing at left back, that meant he would be going up against the likes of Milos Krasic, Vladimir Bystrov, Alex or any other talented midfielders.
He is without much doubt the fastest defender in Russia, and he can use that speed well for offensive or defensive purposes. The Ivorian defender may not have found a true home yet, as he continues to bounce from club to club, but he can play top-notch defense for anybody.
12. Rodolfo, Lokomotiv Moscow
Center back; 1.83m (6'); 27 years old; Santos, Brazil
Rodolfo etched his name in the Lokomotiv history books when he was named team captain late in the year after the departure of Diniyar Bilyaletdinov. A shock to some, as the band did not go to a Russian, it was a symbol from Yuri Semin about how much he meant to the team.
The Brazilian will probably never be called up for the senior side, but like many others before him, the motto is the same: The best defense is a good offense.
Rodolfo has no hesitation in getting forward and is in fact quite comfortable doing so. Despite his smaller stature that doesn't seem to fit the mold of a bruising Russian center back, he is a threat to score from close range and distance.
11. Dmitri Belorukov, Amkar Perm
Center Back; 1.91m (6'3"); 26 years old; St. Petersburg, Russia
Only a few years ago, Belorukov was named to the RFU Top 33 list as a center back. Unlike Rodolfo, Belorukov is exactly what you'd expect from a Russian defender: big, tall, very strong, and not exceptionally fast.
His strength can sometimes be a downfall, as he is consistently one of the league leaders in cards, alongside teammate Ivan Cherenchikov. But there is no question that smaller forwards do not enjoy going up against him.
Amkar will need him back at his old form if they are to challenge the Salacious Six for a spot in Europe this season.
10. Martin Jiranek, Spartak Moscow
Center back; 1.90m (6'3"); 30 years old; Prague, Czech Republic
Spartak Moscow under Valery Karpin aren't know for their defense. The 30-year-old Czech veteran defies that system.
Since coming over from Serie A side Reggina in 2004, Jiranek has never been called on to score goals, but instead provide leadership and solid defensive play on the back end. By those means, Spartak's captain has been invaluable.
For a side that attacks at any time from any different direction, Spartak needs it's center backs to be able to deal with the threat of counter-attacks. Jiranek can certainly do that. He has good size, but isn't a lumbering defender who can't dribble or bring the ball up the field.
Spartak will need his presence even more so than usual when they return to the Champions League this summer.
9. Denis Kolodin, Dinamo Moscow
Center back; 1.86m (6'1"); 28 years old; Kamyshin, Russia
Most people remember the Human Howitzer for his performance at Euro 2008 against the Netherlands. He wouldn't have the name for any other reason than the fact that he has the hardest shot in Russia, and uses it whenever possible.
He was plagued by the injury bug in the 2009 season, hampering his effectiveness even when he could play. But he's healthy once again and looking to get back on form, because it was only two years ago that he smashed in nine goals.
While his offense is certainly a talking point, his defense often is overlooked. He can also move the ball quite well from the back end and he possesses deceptive speed.
Having a stay-at-home defender alongside for the 2010 season should make him one happy man though.
8. Vasili Berezutskiy, CSKA Moscow
Center/Right back; 1.90m (6'3"); 27 years old; Moscow, Russia
Twin brother of fellow CSKA defender Aleksey Berezutskiy, Vasili is one of the more accomplished Russian back liners today.
He might be tall in stature but he can play basically any defensive position. A brute inside both boxes, he also has shown surprising quickness and skill moving the ball upfield.
He also possesses the deceptively effective ability to lose himself inside the box, which may be odd for a man his size. You can commonly find him lurking at the far post on a free kick or corner.
Featuring on CSKA's back line since 2002, he has been named to the RFU's Top 33 list for the past five seasons and also received 43 Russian caps in that time. Linked with moves to England in the offseason, Vasili has rejected several opportunities abroad to stick with the Army Men.
7. Leandro Fernandez, Dynamo Moscow
Left back; 1.79m (5'11"); 27 years old; Rosario, Argentina
In 2009, Fernandez was forced into duty at center back because of pure necessity, a position he has never been exactly a natural at.
But in 2010, he will move back to the left wing where he has much more ability to succeed. A very quick defender both with and without the ball, Fernandez also possesses an excellent header despite his smaller stature.
He has also been a very consistent performer for Dynamo, playing over 2,000 minutes in each of the past four seasons. Normally a very disciplined defender that always choses the safe play over the high-risk, high-reward one.
6. Fernando Meira, Zenit St. Petersburg
Center back; 1.90m (6'3"); 31 years old; Guimaraes, Portugal
Meira was signed by Zenit St. Petersburg before the 2009 season from Galatasaray. While it took the Portuguese defender a little time to adjust to life in Russia, once he did it was a sight to see.
During the summer, he paired with young Belgian defender Nicolas Lombaerts and formed a superb duo for Zenit. The two led the charge, helping the team go from 8th place into a Champions League spot at the end of the year.
Although he was bothered by injuries in October, there was no doubting his influence on the defense. Some players age like milk, but Meira is indeed a fine wine and was playing some of his finest football at 31.
A commanding presence inside with a fiery temper, he brings an infectious energy to the stadium every day and there is no player happier to see someone else score.
Meira is rarely a threat to score, as he doesn't usually make too much effort to get forward, but there is no doubt he is the enforcer on Zenit's back line that no forward enjoys going up against.
5. Sergei Ignashevich, CSKA Moscow
Center back; 1.86m (6'1"); 30 years old; Moscow, Russia
Ignashevich has been a stalwart on the Russian back line for the better part of the last decade and consistently one of the RPL's finest central defenders.
Very much a no-nonsense defender, he would never consider himself an offensive center back, but there's no question he has a knack for scoring big goals. A free-kick-must for CSKA, he might not possess the hardest shot, but his accuracy is incredible. He forces a save nearly every time.
In fact, he almost never scores at home. He found net four times for CSKA and Russia in 2009 and every goal came away from the Luzhniki Stadium.
But into his 30s now, he has shown no signs of slowing down and should continue to be a force for CSKA for the foreseeable future.
4. Cesar Navas, Rubin Kazan
Center back; 1.96m (6'5"); 30 years old; Mostoles, Spain
Navas left Spanish club Racing Santander in the winter of 2009 on a mission to Kazan. The former Real Madrid youth product became the first ever Spanish player in the Russian Premier League.
He sure didn't disappoint either. You could almost say that the RPL fit him better than La Liga. The monstrous center back appeared in 28 of 30 matches for Rubin, helping the Kazan club to the finest defensive record in the league.
While his bruising style wasn't exactly appreciated in the more up-tempo Spanish Primera, it was a match made in heaven for Kurban Berdiyev, who saw this immediately.
He was named to the RFU Top 33 and very deservedly so. He made life tremendously easy on goalkeeper Sergei Ryzhikov for most of the season with the ease that he could clear the box from trouble. At 30 years old, he finally beat Barcelona at the Nou Camp.
3. Nicolas Lombaerts, Zenit St. Petersburg
Center back; 1.88m (6'2"); 24 years old; Brugge, Belgium
In May 2008, Lombaerts suffered a severe knee injury during a routine training session. His future was in doubt as well as when he might ever get back onto the pitch. Even when he did, there were questions about how effective he would be.
It took him 14 months of recovery and rehab before he could return.
But when he did, it was inspiring to see. He went from an unproven substitute to a starter to completely irreplaceable in a matter of weeks. The confidence and level-headed play that he brought every weekend finally gave Zenit the force it needed on the back line.
However, he not only proved to be a defensive wizard, but a man that could contribute offensively equally as well. An instant threat on set pieces, he scored the biggest goal of his career, a game winner against Spartak Moscow to send Zenit back to the Champions League.
A perfect blend of speed, size, and skill, Lombaerts can improve even farther in 2010.
2. Cristian Ansaldi, Rubin Kazan
Left back; 1.78m (5'10"); 23 years old; Rosario, Argentina
One of the brightest young stars of the RPL is also one of the brightest young defenders in Argentina.
With his combination of offensive ability and solid tackling, Ansaldi established himself as far and away the best left back in Russia. He also had the opportunity of a lifetime, going head-to-head against compatriot Lionel Messi and playing a phenomenal match.
But he's done so much more than shut down Lionel Messi. A constant professional that looks for any way to improve his game, he is all that Rubin stands for. Mental toughness, determination, and 120% effort at all times.
Since coming to Russia, he has come a long, long way from the raw defender he was in 2007.
1. Aleksandr Anyukov, Zenit St. Petersburg
Right back; 1.78m (5'10"); 27 years old; Samara, Russia
Anyukov has been the best right back in the RPL for the last several years without much doubt. In fact, the only time he lost on the top spot was to a guy by the name of Branislav Ivanovic. Not bad company.
He has been a fixture on Zenit's back line since coming over from his hometown club Krylia Sovetov Samara in 2005. His devotion to the club lead to him being named Zenit captain under caretaker Anatoliy Davydov.
By every definition, he is the Russian equivalent of Dani Alves or Sergio Ramos, a marauding wing back that often gets forward to provide service into the attackers. While not as accomplished as either of those two men, Anyukov's role is very much the same and he can pass or score from the right side.
But his defense is what sets him apart from other attacking wing backs. He plays with tremendous emotion and will not back down from anybody. The Zenit captain indeed knows no limits.