Following on from what actually felt like quite a short winter break, the Russian Premier League has returned. And with now another 9 rounds to go, the table is now just starting to sort itself out once and for all.
Atop the pile sit CSKA Moscow, who hold a solid seven point lead over second placed Anzhi, while reigning champions Zenit sit 8 points adrift in 3rd. Right at the other end of the table, Alania and Mordovia, both stuck on just 12 points each, are just starting to be cut adrift.
But the first two rounds of the championship played this year have been nothing less than engrossing. Mordovia themselves managed to provide the biggest sensation of the season so far, beating high flying Anzhi 2-0 in Saransk in a result that shocked Europe let alone Russia.
CSKA are extending their lead at the top with every passing week, but Anzhi and Zenit aren’t done yet. With Russian clubs struggling in Europe as whole this season, you could be forgiven for assuming the level of football in Russia has taken a dip, but the football in the first two rounds this year in the Premier League have proven otherwise, in what is shaping up to be a climax to the season that is going to be thoroughly intriguing.
Talk that CSKA can already call themselves champions however, may yet be a bit early. After what has so far been almost a perfect season, the Muscovites find themselves closing in on a first league title since way back in 2006. Despite being without star striker Seydou Doumbia for most of the campaign, the Army men have powered their way into first place and show no sign of letting their grasp on the title slip.
Already having won an impressive 77% of their matches, they win just about every week without fail, and have started this year off in good fashion, finishing up on the winning side against both Krylya Sovetov and Krasnodar. One of their main men so far this season has been Swedish midfielder Rasmus Elm.
The 25 year old made his name with Dutch outfit AZ Alkmaar before making the move to Moscow, and in his debut season, his passing in midfield has made CSKA more coherent in the attacking third. He has also weighed in with a few goals also, with 5 to his name, which included a crucial equalising goal away to Zenit at the end of last year.
At the other end of the field they are proving themselves to be a force as well, conceding just 17 goals so far, the best record in the league, and to many it’s come as a bit of a surprise. A defence which consists of the Berezutskiy brothers, Alexey and Vasiliy, and Sergey Ignashevich hasn’t always had the best of reputations, but this term they have most certainly proven their worth, and Swedish full back Pontus Wernbloom has added muscle and strength into the back line.
The reasons for CSKA’s success so far in this season though could be quite simple, and it could have nothing to do with just how good the Muscovites are. Since August, when AIK Solna from Sweden somehow managed to knock out the Russian giants from European football until the next season, CSKA have been able to focus all their attention on to just domestic matters.
The same can’t be said for closest challengers Anzhi and Zenit though, who have both had to juggle their eggs between two baskets up until last week, when they both got beaten in the last 16 round of the Europa League. Anzhi have been in European action incredibly since last July, and recently, it’s been looking like it has finally taken its toil on their weary players.
Positioning themselves in second place and ready to pounce on any mistake that CSKA would make, and qualifying for the knockout stages of the Europa League, Anzhi made 2012 a year to remember. But they have started this year just how they wouldn’t have wanted. Tumbling out of Europe to a last minute goal against Newcastle in the last 16 stage was bad enough, but losing to minnows Mordovia and only getting a 1-1 draw at home to Krylya Sovetov in domestic affairs has already almost ruled out any change of silverware this season.
It’s not only Anzhi who have had a rough start to 2013. Current Russian champions Zenit Saint Petersburg haven’t quite had the start to the year that everyone dreamed of, just like Anzhi their European adventure has already come to an end at the last 16 stage. The defeat to Rubin in the first game in Russia this year has prompted many to already fully rule out Zenit from the title race, but a vital 1-0 home win against Mordovia last weekend has kept hope alive among the Saint Petersburg faithful at least.
Zenit still have to sort out internal affairs though if they want to have a realistic shot at defending their crown. Roman Shirokov publically criticised much maligned team mate Hulk after Shirokov himself missed a crucial penalty in the match against Basel, and such problems have been present in the team ever since Hulk and talented Belgian midfielder Axel Witsel joined in big money signings last summer, two transfers which were meant to enforce Zenit’s chances of glory even more, but have proven to do quite the opposite.
Anzhi and Zenit have to be looking over the shoulders as well though. The chasing pack which consists of Spartak, Kuban, Rubin and Dynamo are just starting to close in, in a race for the European places that looks set to go all the way down to the wire. Rubin are in particular looking in good shape.
A European quarter final against Chelsea in the Europa League is looming on the horizon, and it isn’t just in Europe that they have made a good start in this year. A 1-0 victory against Zenit and then a goalless draw against Terek in Grozny have helped bring Rubin within striking distance of the Saint Petersburg club and on the verge of clinching a definite European slot.
Looking downwards, and the action doesn’t get any more dire. Mordovia and Alania are stuck down at the bottom and are looking more and more certain to go down, despite Alania’s headline winter acquisitions of ex Real Madrid man Royston Drenthe and BATE Borisov star Renan Bressan.
Above them though is the battle to avoid the relegation playoffs, which will be played against the 3rd and 4th placed team from the First Division, and the battle is heating up. Any two of four teams could be sucked into fighting for their Premier League lives in a playoff later on this season, with Volga and Krylya Sovetov currently occupying these unwanted slots but Amkar and Rostov have no reason to sit comfortably, with just 5 points separating 14th placed Krylya with Amkar.
A thrilling last couple of months are upon us, and make any firm predictions at your peril. CSKA may be sitting pretty but chances for Zenit and Anzhi will come, especially when the Army club have 3 challenging games in a row, against Dynamo, Spartak and Rubin. A series of games in which it is almost certain they will drop valuable points.
The Muscovites may have it all in their own hands, but that is just when life starts to become more dangerous.
Written by Shaun Nicolaides
Follow Shaun on Twitter @zenitfan93
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