A new season is upon us and with it comes the first phase in Russia’s attempts to align the domestic league with those of western Europe, which means rather than stopping after 30 games come December, the league will split in half, with the top eight competing for a further 14 matches to decide the champions by summer 2012, while the bottom eight will do the same to sort out who goes down.
One interesting outcome of the calendar shift could be the rise of the southern clubs. Those in the east, like Tomsk and Perm, will have to deal with a sharp drop in favourable playing conditions as, to a lesser extent, will those in the north.
While big sides like Zenit, Spartak and CSKA should have the quality to cope, the rest could struggle, and they will all have to play more matches, home and away, in bad conditions than their southern counterparts who will enjoy a much more temperate climate throughout.
The mammoth 2011/12 campaign looks set to become something of a Bylina – the epic sagas of the Russian folklore, where tales are told of mighty warrior-heroes, their travails, exploits and aspirations.
So how will our prospective heroes fare and who are set to become the villains of the piece?
Frankly, it’s still a case of the usual suspects when it comes down to who’s going to land the title, despite the second phase maybe making things a little less predictable.
The big sides have been coy in the pre-season transfer market after splashing the cash last January, and it’s been more a case of hanging on to the talent they have – until the rest of Europe settles in to the summer spending, at least.
Their utter dominance of the league last season makes Zenit the obvious choice for champions. Spalletti hit the ground running in his first season which set the tone, but now he faces the new campaign with major injuries to his squad – Semak and Kerzhakov are set to miss the first month and influential winger, Bystrov, is out until the summer, minimum, with a torn cruciate ligament. An odd lack of any significant signings – as yet – means the squad will be tested from the off, leaving them vulnerable to the rest of the pack should they falter early on.
The Army Men finished strongly last time out but only came good after January when Love, Doumbia and Zoran Tosic settled in. Keisuke Honda is still in Moscow, for now, so a settled and prepared CSKA look set to be Zenit’s biggest threat. Latvian starlet Aleksandrs Cauna (on loan from Skonto Riga), Stepan Ryabokon and Viktor Vasin are the young talents drafted in – though Vasin, after a fine season at Amkar, is already ruled out for a lengthy period with torn ligaments.
It feels strange to call Spartak perennial under-achievers but the fact is they have not won the league for a decade. Valery Karpin’s young-bucks are another year older and wiser, and with McGeady featuring from the start this time and exciting Pavel Yakovlev returning from his loan at Kryliya, the goals look likely to flow in even greater numbers for the prolific Welliton. The Meat need to be more resilient and consistent if they are to push Zenit, and will have problems if the Brazilian striker gets injured or sold, but a Champions League spot is surely in the bag.
Kurban Berdiev’s success at Rubin has been very much built upon a rock solid defence but with no discernable talent upfront replacing the Bukharov-Dominguez glory years partnership (now playing at Zenit and Valencia, respectively), means Champions League football, rather than the title itself, is the challenge. Vladimir Dyadyun, who played well out on loan at Amkar Perm last season, returns to try and prove he’s the goal scorer the Kazan club have been missing since 2009 while Syarhey Kislyak, the Belarus midfielder, has also joined from Dinamo Minsk.
Dynamo have stuck by manager Miodrag Bozovic after a less than auspicious 2010. Indeed, he’s been handed the chequebook for 2011/12 and recruited Bosnia’s most capped player, Zvejdan Misimovic, from Galatasaray, for 4.5m euros. If the former Bayern Munich playmaker can establish an understanding with strikers Kuranyi and Voronin, and they uphold their end of the bargain (goals), coupled with the decent addition of former Russia international, Andrey Karyaka and the return of striking starlet, Fyodor Smolov, from loan at Feyenoord, then Dynamo could well claim a Europa league spot. And if all else fails, maybe they could lean on their other new signing, Boris Rotenberg, for more transfer funds as both his father (also Boris) and uncle (Arkady) are in Russia’s top 100 richest people.
The loss of Oleksandr Aliyev, who contributed 14 goals and six assists last season, is huge for the Railwaymen. But they have replaced him with Senijad Ibricic, a 5m euro signing from Hajduk Split. The free-scoring Bosnian is an exciting addition who they must hope can link productively with Sychev but a lack of depth in defence might cost Loko in their attempts to land a Europa League berth.
SURPRISE PACKAGES & UNKNOWN QUANTITIES
The latest nouveau-riche club in the RPL have landed a string of transfer coups, all with a distinctly Brazilian twist. Roberto Carlos was the first marquee signing and the most crucial as his reputation has helped persuade compatriots Jucilei, Joao Carlos and Diego Tardelli to join Suleyman Kerimov’s Dagestani revolution. And when Belgium’s Mbark Boussoufa made a last minute switch to join Anzhi, from Anderlecht, over Terek Grozny, the icing was put on the cake. Uzbekistan’s player of the year 2009, Odil Ahmedov, has also arrived on loan from Pakhtakor as has goal-scoring midfielder Shamil Lakhiyalov. A European berth would be a massive achievement for the club and, when and if signings settle, they could do it.
Of course, one of the most sensational stories pre-season was Ruud Gullit’s move to Chechnya. The financial clout of owner, Bulat Chagaev, coupled with the desired ‘Gullit effect’ makes Terek an interesting prospect – they just need to actually sign a few top players, rather than simply fuel the rumour mill (Forlan et al) further. Maybe they should’ve signed a few Brazilian legends when they had the chance?
Ex-Chelsea star, Dan Petrescu, took the Cossacks back to the Premier League at the first time of asking after joining from Unirea Urziceni in 2010. The yo-yo club only conceded 20 in 38 games as they claimed the First Division title last year, so they have a sturdy defence. Added to that, Petrescu has smashed the club’s record transfer fee to land Ivorian striker, Lacina Traore, for a fee of £3.5m from CFR Cluj to get the goals at the other end of the pitch. They look like they’ll have enough to survive.
The Ural Mountains side only avoided relegation via goal difference last season and nothing suggests they won’t be in contention again this time. No significant strengthening has been done, as they are still very much in a fragile economic state – something that led Amkar to announce they were going to withdraw from the league, before revoking that request back in January.
VOLGA NIZHNY NOVGOROD
Ex-Dynamo Moscow star, Omari Tetradze, presided over a team that finished second in the First Division last year, outscoring every other club in the league. Goals will probably be a lot harder to come by this season, however, so they have recruited experience in Lasha Salukvadze (from Rubin), Gogita Gogua (Spartak Nalchik) and Leilton (Kryliya Sovetov Samara).
City rivals of Petrescu’s Kuban, Krasnodar only finished fifth in the First Division yet find themselves in the RPL by virtue of the fact that a) Saturn went out of business over the winter and b) the clubs that finished above them all refused to take the place on offer, offering reasons that included not wanting to gain promotion without earning it and not being ready to make the step up. Clearly, Krasnodar had no qualms about taking over from Saturn but as for whether they’re really ready, I’d say not – especially as they only conceded one fewer than Kuban and Volga Nizhny Novgorod last season. But they’ve signed Armenian striker, Yura Movsisyan, for 2.5m euros from Randers, in the hope that they might be in any case.
However, I reckon that the unpredictability factor of a second phase of 14 games will affect the ‘relegation league’ more than the ‘champion’s league’. As such I’m going to venture that the bottom two after the first round of 30 will not be the two who go down in the end. So there, the unpredictable – predicted!
MID-TABLE MEDIOCRITY (‘COS SOMEONE HAS TO BE)
Actually, if Nalchik navigate the perils of relegation successfully, they’ll consider it a good season. Were surprise early front-runners last time out but have since lost their striker, Vladimir Dyadyun, back to his parent club, Rubin, their stand out defender, Viktor Vasin, to CSKA and most importantly, their manager Yuri Krasnozhan, to Lokomotiv. Things look a little bleak.
KRYLIYA SOVETOV SAMARA
Pulled off a sensational mid-season turn-around last year and ended up avoiding the drop despite huge financial setbacks and squad losses right at the outset and the usually solid club will probably further their recovery with a solid, if unspectacular position this time. Will suffer for the loss of Pavel Yakovlev, who returns to parent club Spartak Moscow, but have signed left-back Dmitry Molosh, from Sibir Novosbirsk, who delighted crowds last season with his marauding forays and thunderous long-distance shooting.
Veteran striker, Dmitry Kirichenko, has rejoined the club he used to play for back at the turn of the century and even at 34, Rostov fans must be excited to think they’ve got a player with well over 100 league goals to his name up front. If only they could perform with more consistency.
Have really bolstered their ranks by signing 19 players, mainly youngsters and loanees – such as Rubin’s defender, Evgeny Balyaykin. But they have also added Nikita Bazhenov and Renat Sabitov, (both from Spartak Moscow), and Belarus international Sergey Sosnovski (from BATE Borisov), for keeps. Have consistently knocked around mid-table nearly every year for the five they’ve been in the RPL so why bet against them doing exactly the same again?
Tags: CSKA Moscow, preview, Roberto Carlos, Russian Premier League, Ruud Gullit, Zenit St.Petersburg