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Russian players have a mixed record in the English Premier League. Andrei Kanchelskis is perhaps still regarded as the best – although born in the Ukraine – during his time at Manchester United. Others have followed, but failed to live up to their reputation and now Stoke City are reportedly interested in making striker, Fedor Smolov, the next import from Eastern Europe.
The FC Krasnodar forward has scored 10 times in just 12 Russian Premier League matches – adding another two in the UEFA Europa League – grabbing the attention of clubs across Europe. Speaking to local TV, he admitted that a move was possible:
“It seems there are clubs interested in Europe; in England, Stoke City, and Germany, said the 26-year-old. “From the latter there is even an offer to move this winter. I need to think.”
“There is an offer (to move in January from a German team) that I do not want to name. That's where I'm ready to go, even this winter.” When pushed on whether it was Borussia Dortmund of not, he said he didn’t know, but emphasised that he didn’t believe he would leave in the January window.
However, he did reveal that he was more likely to change clubs in the summer. With Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang linked with a move away from BVB, the international could be lined up to replace the Gabonese forward, but the lure of the Premier League will be hard to resist.
Marko Arnautovic signed an extension with the Potters in the summer, keeping the Austrian at the Britannia until 2020. He’s failed to impress as much this season, scoring just once in 13 league games. The former Werder Bremen man has been playing out wide this term, leaving Mark Hughes to call upon Wilfried Bony and Jonathan Walters to lead the attack,
When Joe Allen is your top scorer with four goals in December, it’s no surprise the club is looking for better options in attack. Smolov, who came through the ranks at Dynamo Moscow and spent time on loan at Feyenoord in 2010, has won 19 caps for Russia, including in Marseille against England at Euro 2016.
He plays somewhat as a hybrid between the Austrian and the Ivorian and has gone from an attacker who can play deeper and out on the left-wing, to a centre-forward leading the line for the Russian club.
Unlike the way Bony plays, Smolov is not a limited target man. He does use his body very well, knowing his team he will back into defenders to try and hold the ball up, rather than looking for flick ons. Either he’ll over-power the defender or do enough to win a free-kick.
There are elements of Olivier Giroud in his play. Far from slow, but not quite quick enough to run past defences. He has the alertness and speed over the first few steps to get in front of his markers. Sometimes, that’s all you need.
Smolov has kept elements of his game from playing out wide. He plays like the reverse Arjen Robben role, drifting wide left before coming inside and looking to punish teams with his right foot. Technically, he isn’t a standout player, his crossing leaves a lot to be desired and he’ll lose the ball now and again with his touch.
He does have moments of magic though, the recent goal against CSKA Moscow was a great example of this. His lovely touch lifted the ball over the centre-back, then he superbly volleyed his shot into the bottom corner.
When you watch his movement, you can see that the 26-year-old is a natural striker. He will peel away from his marker unnoticed. He has that instinct that sees him find space when he needs it most. Inside the box, he is deadly, always close to hitting the corners. You rarely see him score a goal when you think the ‘keeper could have done better.
From distance, Smolov’s ability to hit the target lacks consistency and accuracy. He is definitely better when he keeps his game simple and does what he does best. In the 1-1 draw with CSKA, deep in injury time, Smolov had three opportunities outside the box to try and create something for his team. Each time he made the wrong decision.
Rather than pick a pass, look for a team-mate, or just keep the ball and move it around, he decided to shoot. All three went wide and failed to test the goalkeeper.
There is no doubt that Stoke City could do with more talent in the final third and Smolov certainly has the physical capacity to compete in the Premier League. His smart movement and finishing will create opportunities and there’s little doubt he will score goals.
It’s difficult to believe he is quite good enough to be the man to lead the attack at Signal Iduna Park. At his age, he’s not going to get that much better than he is now. Dortmund should look for someone younger with a higher ceiling, and from what Smolov has done from Krasnodar, it may be better for Hughes to look elsewhere too.