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The young Russian sports stars to watch in 2022

KAMILA VALIEVA

At just 15 years of age, Valieva is already a bona fide figure skating superstar.

In her debut season among the international senior ranks, the petite ice queen has captured the ISU’s Finlandia Trophy as well as Grand Prix titles in Vancouver and Sochi.

Valieva has smashed world records along the way, and capped a spectacular year by cruising to victory at the Russian Championships at the end of December.

Valieva is Russia’s latest figure-skating queen. © Sputnik

Ominously for her rivals, Valieva has vowed there is room for improvement ahead of the European Championships in Tallinn, Estonia, in January.

READ MORE: ‘Otherworldly’: Figure skating prodigy Valieva dazzles to win Russian Championships (VIDEO)

The youngster has already booked a spot on the Russian team for the Beijing Winter Olympics in February, and goes into the ladies’ singles event as the red-hot favorite for gold. 

Coached by the renowned Eteri Tutberidze, Valieva has demonstrated a mature head which belies her tender years.

Should she carry her sensational form all the way to China, Valieva will be expected to make it a hat-trick of Russian Olympic female figure skating champions after the titles for Adelina Sotnikova in Sochi in 2014, and Alina Zagitova in PyeongChang at the 2018 Games.

Don’t take your eyes off the ice when Valieva is around. 

Valieva is now Russian women’s senior figure skating champion. © Sputnik

ARSEN ZAKHARYAN

Russia endured a difficult 2021 in football terms, suffering an early exit at the European Championship and failing to qualify automatically for the 2022 World Cup in Qatar.

The team has struggled to find any sense of attacking cohesion or identity, even under new manager Valeri Karpin, who took over from Stanislav Cherchesov following the Euro 2020 debacle in the summer.

But bright shoots are starting to poke through, not least in the form of 18-year-old midfielder Arsen Zakharyan.

Zakharyan has already made an impact with the national team. © Sputnik

The Samara-born youngster plays his club football at Dynamo Moscow, where he is already an integral part of a bright, forward-looking team which is challenging Zenit St. Petersburg at the top of the Russian Premier League table.

Zakharyan has scored seven times and registered 11 assists in 30 Russian Premier League appearances thus far in his budding career.

At international level he has been capped four times in the senior Russian ranks, laying on an assist in the win against Slovakia in October.

The youngster was forced to miss the Euros with illness and was also out injured for the crucial World Cup qualifying group match in Croatia, but will be expected to have a role when Russia attempt to negotiate the playoffs in March, starting with a clash with Poland.

Zakharyan has shone for club team Dynamo Moscow. © Sputnik

Football transfer talk is notoriously mendacious but the fact that Zakharyan has been mentioned in the same sentence as the likes of Barcelona and, more recently, Real Madrid shows that he is turning heads.

Zakharyan has been labeled a “teenage magician” by the likes of football website Goal.com, while he also made the Guardian’s list of the world’s 60 best young football talents back in 2020.

If you’re looking for a young talent to watch in Russian football in 2022, you’d be hard pressed to find a better option than Arsen Zakharyan.

ANDREY RUBLEV

Already established at world number five and with eight ATP tour titles to his name, Rublev is perhaps the best-known name on this list in global sporting terms. 

Nonetheless, still aged just 24 he is primed to go from strength to strength in 2022 and – if he continues his rise – will be expected to go deeper than ever at this year’s Grand Slams.

Elsewhere, Stepanova finished fifth in the women’s 10km at the FIS event in Muonio, Finland, in November, and 10th over the same distance at the World Cup stage in Davos, Switzerland.

The Beijing Olympics will likely come around too soon for Stepanova to enjoy major success, but she has shown she is working hard to build on the credentials she earned at junior level, where she was a Nordic world champion.

In the meantime, Michkov will remain in the KHL, less illustrious than its powerhouse North American equivalent but well worth following – not least to keep tabs on Russia’s hottest prospect on the ice.   

USMAN NURMAGOMEDOV

If the name sounds familiar, that’s because Nurmagomedov hails from one of Russia’s most famous fighting clans.

The 23-year-old cousin of undefeated former UFC lightweight champion Khabib Nurmagomedov, Usman is now forging a name for himself in his own right in the world of MMA.

Usman Nurmagomedov is a rising prospect in the Bellator MMA ranks. © Bellator MMA

A highly-rated prospect who stands unbeaten after 14 fights, Usman opted to pursue a path in the Bellator ranks rather than the brighter lights of the UFC for the first big steps in his career, but the UFC Octagon surely beckons further down the line if he continues his current arc.

Competing at 155lbs like his iconic cousin, Usman boasts a strong ground game – perhaps unsurprising given his Dagestani heritage.

Thus far he has largely been untroubled in his three outings under the Bellator banner, including an embarrassingly one-sided win in his last fight in Moscow in October.

Afterwards, Nurmagomedov called for a significant step up in competition and fans will be desperate to see what the young fighter is capable of in 2022.

He has since made headlines for unwanted reasons when a car he was traveling in struck a traffic officer, leading to his detention in Moscow, although it emerged that Nurmagomedov was only a witness in the case – even though he still had the riot act read to him by his illustrious cousin.  

Khabib is part of Usman’s coaching team © Bellator MMA

One of the men who coached Khabib to the pinnacle of the sport, American Kickboxing Academy guru Javier Mendez, has tipped Usman for similarly big things, describing him as among the most precocious talents he has ever trained.

“He can do it all. He needs seasoning, he needs experience and mental [strength], but he is by far the most talented and gifted fighter I’ve ever had,” Mendez told RT Sport.

Mendez might be biased, of course, but it will be intriguing to find out whether Nurmagomedov can deliver on that innate talent inside the cage in 2022.

ALSU ABDULLINA 

Last but not least, if the aforementioned Arsen Zakharyan is one youngster to watch from Russian men’s football in 2022, then the female equivalent is defender Alsu Abdullina.

The 20-year-old Abdullina recently left Russian club Lokomotiv Moscow for English giants Chelsea, who were winners of the English Women’s Super League for the past two seasons.

A versatile left-back, Abdullina was noted by Chelsea for the “energy and physicality” she will add to an already star-studded team.

Born in Russia’s Republic of Tatarstan, Abdullina made a name for herself after moving to the respected academy at Moscow club Chertanovo, and from there heading to cross-city rivals Lokomotiv.

After signing for the London club owned by Russian billionaire Roman Abramovich, Abdullina spoke of her happiness at taking on what will be “a big change in my life and a new challenge.”

“I want to continue to develop as a player and progress in London. I want to help the team to win as many trophies as possible,” added the star, who has already won 30 caps for the Russian national team.

Abdullina will be playing under Chelsea women’s manager Emma Hayes, who is one of the most respected figures in the game.

“Alsu is a very good young player who has accumulated a lot of club and national appearances for her age,” Hayes said in praise of the new arrival.

“Alsu is a versatile player who can play any position on the left, adding more depth to the squad. We look forward to seeing how she develops in our environment over the next couple of years.”

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A post shared by Abdullina Alsu (@ab_alsu)

The move has been described as huge for women’s football in Russia as Abdullina arguably becomes her nation’s most high-profile female player.  

© 2022, paradox. All rights reserved.

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