The day has finally come. The Russian Premier League is back in full swing again and, perhaps, better than ever. At least the Big Six might feel that way. A quartet of Moscow-based clubs looks to make a strong impression, while the boys from Kazan and St. Petersburg might have other ideas.
One of those Moscow clubs, CSKA, played to a fantastic 1-1 draw at Luzhniki against Sevilla a few weeks ago. The Army Men got behind early, but equalized with a thunderous strike from Chilean Mark Gonzalez. Despite giving up the away goal, the former Liverpool man gave his side an awful lot of confidence heading to Spain.
The debut of one Japanese international Keisuke Honda was more than impressive as well. If CSKA will be receiving similar performances throughout the season in the midfield, they have themselves an incredible bargain.
In the Europa League, current Russian champion Rubin Kazan also played to a 1-1 draw with defending Bundesliga top dogs Wolfsburg at the Central Stadium. Not the result the stingy Rubin defense—under Kurban Berdiyev—was necessarily hoping for, but throughout the 2009 campaign, the Tatars were a better road team.
Heading to Germany with it all level is not a daunting task in their minds.
But let's get to the weekend's activity. Home side first. Listed table positions are 2009 end-of-the-year results. A "1" stands for home victory, "X" stands for a draw, and the number "2" means an away victory.
1. CSKA Moscow (5th)—Amkar Perm (13th): 1
Friday, 12 March 2010, Arena Khimki
Since Amkar was promoted to the RPL back in 2004, they have never defeated CSKA in any venue, and have lost every road contest in that span. Not a sparkling record for a team that plunged nine spots in the table after its 2008 season.
In 2009, the red-blacks had the worst offensive record (only 27 goals) of any club that was not relegated, and should have even more difficulty scoring now after the loss of Brazilian playmaker Jean Carlos.
On the other side, CSKA controlled play for long stretches against La Liga giants Sevilla, and have no major injury concerns heading into the opening weekend. Leonid Slutskiy will be sure to field his best side against a tough defensive Amkar unit in attempt to get his squad out of the gate in convincing fashion.
2. Krylia Sovetov Samara (10th)—Zenit St. Petersburg (3rd): 2
Saturday, 13 March 2010, Stadion Metallurg Samara
Krylia Sovetov haven't been the only Russian side finding themselves in financial difficulties this winter. But unlike FC Moscow, who was forced into bankruptcy, Samara found a new investor. But even still, this is a very different squad from the one who gave Zenit an uneasy challenge in late September.
Jan Koller, Jiri Jarosik, and Timofey Kalachev have all departed, leaving Yuri Gazzaev with a very young roster indeed. New Zenit boss Luciano Spalletti has more than a handful of talented players and he will do what it takes to make his Russian debut one to remember.
With playmaking midfielder Danny back from injury and an entirely revamped attack that will feature Aleksandr Kerzhakov and former PSV man Danko Lazovic, Zenit should have no problems moving the ball around and creating chances against a much less imposing Samara squad.
Krylia Sovetov should hang around for a short bit of time, but the immense skill of Spalletti's men will eventually prevail on the road.
3. Anzhi (1st, First Division)—Spartak Nalchik (11th): X
Saturday, 13 March 2010, Stadion Makhachkala
Anzhi will be making its first return to the RPL since 2002 against a squad from Nalchik that they have never met in a Premier League match. Neither team features any truly outstanding players, and the two teams should be considered the primary favorites for relegation come November.
But even so, the two clubs have met a handful of times in the First Division and they have never failed to produce goals. The Caucasus region clubs should produce some fireworks, with Spartak's Brazilian midfield maestro Leandro potentially beginning an audition to join a bigger club in the summer.
4. Rostov (14th)—Tom Tomsk (9th): 2
Saturday, 13 March 2010, Olympic Stadium Rostov
Rostov barely avoided relegation in 2009, but they took notice and attempted to upgrade the squad. Possibly no addition stands out more than that of Russian U-21 international defender Gia Grigalava, who is viewed by many as the finest young center back in the national system.
However, the Siberians also made significant upgrades including loaning Zenit St. Petersburg striker Sergei Kornilenko and Spartak Moscow left back Andrei Ivanov. The club also added Korean duo Young-Rok Shin and Nam-Il Kim, who give sudden credibility to a roster that was lacking it for major parts of the season in 2009.
This is a contest that has only gone goal-less on one occasion since 2005, but Tomsk should just have enough to grab an opening day victory.
5. Rubin Kazan (1st)—Lokomotiv Moscow (4th): X
Sunday, 14 March 2010, Central Stadium Kazan
Easily one of the marquee matchups of the opening weekend, Lokomotiv announced its title intentions during the transfer period by adding tough Ukrainian midfielder Oleksandr Aliev from Dynamo Kiev and hyper-talented 20-year-old Brazilian striker Maicon from Fluminense. But if they are serious about winning a championship, they must beat Rubin Kazan first.
A tough situation for the Tatars, playing two high-intensity matches in three days, it will be a point of interest to see who gets the start and who is left on the bench. Star striker Aleksandr Bukharov was banged up a bit against Wolfsburg and is a question mark. RFU Top 33 center back Roman Sharonov is also out for Rubin.
But this fixture has provided tons of excitement over the years and neither team can claim supremacy. Lokomotiv's strike force of Peter Odemwingie and newly-appointed captain Dmitri Sychev should prove to be a stern test for Rubin's less-than-100 percent defense. Both teams enjoy a physical brand of football, so there could also be quite a few cards handed out by the final horn.
Ultimately, Lokomotiv is too good to not get a point, especially against a tired Rubin side.
6. Sibir Novosibirsk (2nd, First Division)—Terek Grozny (12th): 1
Sunday, 14 March 2010, Stadion Spartak Novosibirsk
The population of Novosibirsk should be out in full force as their club makes its Russian Premier League debut. They also were handed a very favorable fixture to earn their first victory at the top level.
Terek were absolutely terrible away from home in 2009, scoring the least amount of road goals in the league and finishing with an abysmal minus-20 goal differential. They will also take the field with a very different flavor, not quite the rough-and-tumble squad of a season ago. Instead, they have experienced an infusion of South Americans—Bolivian striker Juan Carlos Arce, Brazilian playmaker Mauricio, and Paraguayan defender Hugo "The Tank" Baez have all joined the Chechens.
This matchup, when played in the First Division, has always produced a winner, and should do the same here as Sibir take advantage of a newly put together squad for Terek that is still attempting to figure things out.
7. Alania (3rd, First Division)—Saturn (7th): 2
Sunday, 14 March 2010, Republikanskiy Stadion Vladikavkaz
The "lucky losers" of the Russian First Division, Alania was promoted as well only because FC Moscow folded due to financial problems. But just because they were lucky to receive a promotion doesn't mean they are playing with house money—they did a ton to bolster their squad in less than a month of notice.
Alania became the first non-Moscow based club to win the RPL back in 1995, and will be greeted in this home fixture by a frenzy of crowd support. Expecting over 35,000 for the match, their opponents are no walkovers.
Commonly seen as a bridge team—not good enough to challenge the Big Six, but too good for bottom teams—Saturn features a very athletic and offensive-minded back line, just like Alania. The Aliens attack force, however, is much more experienced and should be able to spoil Alania's return at least for one day.
Alania, however, made too many improvements in February to be considered heavily as a relegation candidate. They looked poised for a RPL stay.
8. Spartak Moscow (2nd)—Dinamo Moscow (8th): 1
Sunday, 14 March 2010, Luzhniki Stadium
The weekend will finish with a bang, as two historic rivals are set to clash at the Luzhniki. However, in the new millennium, both clubs have seen their run of brilliance dry up. Spartak, who was so dominant in the '90s, have not won the title since 2001. Dinamo has never tasted success since the fall of the Soviet Union.
In fact, the last title they won was 34 years ago. But the club still has a very devoted fanbase and a motivated management, which was arguably the busiest of any team in the winter. Adding five new potential starters including Liverpool striker Andriy Voronin, the Policemen will need all they can get if they are to climb the ladder again.
They couldn't be faced with a more daunting task to open the season. Spartak Moscow's "Greatest Show on Turf" was on full display in 2009, as they posted a superb home record and a 37-13 goal differential at the Luzhniki. Welliton, Russia's leading scorer with 21 goals, looks to improve even more and will be joined up front by compatriot Ari and talented Russian winger Pavel Yakovlev.
Valery Karpin surely has the offense to smash through to victory, and they will be looking to put a 2-0 home defeat last year behind them as quickly as possible. With Dinamo looking for some chemistry with all the new players, Spartak is in a prime position to run out to an early lead and take all three points.
Season Record: 0-0
Current Champions: Rubin Kazan (1)
Rubin starts as this year's team-to-beat after winning two consecutive Russian Premier League titles. With a win or a draw, they will remain the best team in Russia.