The opening week of the Russian Premier League wasn't filled with goals, but it was certainly filled with it's fair share of drama.
Three of the title favorites—Zenit, CSKA, Dinamo, and Rubin—all posted clean sheets for their first victories of the season—but Russia's second Champions League team for 2010-11, Spartak Moscow, flopped to a 1-0 defeat at home while giving its fans very little to be excited about.
The three new sides in the league—Alania, Anzhi, and Sibir Novosibirsk—all had mixed results. Alania put on a show for nearly 30,000 supporters in Vladikavkaz but couldn't overcome 10-man Saturn Moscow. The other two sides did not perform nearly as well on home soil, as both teams were badly outplayed by more experienced RPL squads.
It was also a week to remember for Russian football in Europe, as CSKA qualified for the last eight of the Champions League after dumping Spanish giants Sevilla 2-1 in Andalusia. Striker Tomas Necid and Japanese sensation Keisuke Honda delivered the deciding blows for the Army Men.
Only three matches into his career in Moscow, Honda has already written his name into the history books.
He delivered a tremendous performance at the Luzhniki Stadium in the first leg and was easily the best player on the pitch. In his RPL debut, he scored the winner over Amkar Perm in the 92nd minute. Finally, he smashed a long-range free kick that beat Sevilla keeper Andres Palop that sent CSKA to utopia.
Rubin Kazan, however, was not so lucky. After being eliminated from the Champions League Group of Death, Rubin quickly disposed of Hapoel Tel-Aviv before running into Wolfsburg.
After drawing the first leg one all, Rubin had high hopes for the second leg in Germany. Once again, the Tatars scored first, thanks to Alan Kasaev, but let in another second-half goal. Heading into overtime with half of their players on yellow cards, Rubin saw center back Cesar Navas sent off in the 108th minute for a slight shirt tug on Edin Dzeko.
With both sides playing on dead legs, one simple turnover by substitute Macbeth Sibaya led to the game-winning goal for Wolfsburg in the 119th minute, just 45 seconds before penalties.
The match exposed Rubin's two major flaws—the lack of a quality second striker after the loss of Alejandro Dominguez, and not enough back line depth to execute Kurban Berdiyev's marching orders.
Nonetheless, both squads will return to Russia feeling very good about themselves before Week Two of the season.
So, let's get to it. Home sides listed first. A "1" stands for home victory, "X" stands for a draw, and a "2" stands for an away victory.
1. Spartak Nalchik (10th) vs. Alania (8th): 2
Friday, 19 March 2010, Stadion Spartak
Both sides delivered excellent performances in Week One, as Nalchik thoroughly dominated Anzhi and Alania pushed Saturn to the breaking point. But neither side was rewarded with a victory.
Nalchik and stellar midfielder Leandro return home to a venue that never fails to produce a handful of goals. Alania plays right into that trend, with a back line that loves to push the attack forwards at all times.
The two sister cities of the Caucasus region should produce more than a few fireworks of spillover from their previous matches.
2. Amkar Perm (11th) vs. Anzhi (9th): X
Saturday, 20 March 2010, Zvezda Stadium
Amkar faced the challenging task of meeting CSKA Moscow away on opening day, but the krasno-chernye frustrated the hosts for 90 minutes of play. That wasn't good enough to deny CSKA a ninth-straight victory in home openers as newcomer Keisuke Honda scored deep into stoppage time. However, returning home to the plastic pitch and raucous Zvezda crowd to face newly-promoted Anzhi should be a much more inviting opportunity.
The Dagi were held to a scoreless draw in their first RPL match since 2002 by fellow Caucasus region foes Spartak Nalchik, but it was surely a performance manager Omari Tetradze would want to forget as soon as possible. Nalchik controlled nearly 60 percent of the possession and created far more scoring opportunities.
Both squads should struggle to score goals this season, as Anzhi doesn't field any truly threatening offensive forces and Amkar enjoys defending almost a little too much.
3. Terek Grozny (2nd) vs. Rostov (15th): 1
Saturday, 20 March 2010, Sultan Bilimkhanov Stadium
Terek gave Sibir an unfriendly welcome to the Russian Premier League in its first-ever match of top-flight football, bagging a 2-0 road victory. Shamil Asildarov seemed to fit in perfectly with his old club after two seasons away from the Chechen capital city, as he scored a wonder goal in the second half. South American transfers Juan Carlos Arce and Mauricio also seemed to fit in seamlessly.
On the other hand, Rostov had a second-half meltdown against Tomsk, trying to get a goal but completely disregarding defense in the process. It doesn't get any easier either, as the club has won only once on the road in its last eight RPL matches.
That one road win came against Terek, a fixture where the Selmashi have never failed to score at least three goals.
We should be in for a wild afternoon here, as the Terek faithful have transformed the Sultan Bilimkhanov Stadium into the most intimidating venue in Russia.
4. Saturn (7th) vs. Sibir Novosibirsk (16th): 1
Saturday, 20 March 2010, Saturn Stadium Ramenskoe
The Aliens were pushed hard in their first match away at Alania, where they were badly out-chanced by the hosts but managed to hang on for a draw after losing Pyotr Nemov to a red card in the 66th minute. However, Saturn posted an impressive 9-3-3 record at home in 2009, losing precisely zero times to teams sitting lower in the table.
The Aliens veteran attack corps blended with a very offensive-gifted back line and seems to feed off the intimate atmosphere of being on Saturn.
None of that bodes too well for Sibir, who was outclassed on home soil from the starting whistle by Terek, despite an excellent crowd on hand in Siberia for the debut.
The team should have even less fun in Ramenskoe, given the fact that starting center back Denis Bukhryakov will be missing the match due to a late boneheaded red card for an unnecessarily rough tackle.
Saturn puts on a show for the home fans here.
5. Lokomotiv Moscow (14th) vs. Krylia Sovetov (12th): 1
Saturday, 20 March 2010, Lokomotiv Stadium
The opening weekend didn't exactly go as Lokomotiv planned. Already having a very difficult task of going to Kazan and trying to come away with points, the Paravozy did everything they needed to do for a draw.
But then, a simple lapse in concentration and Rubin scored twice in the last two minutes—an especially demoralizing loss since the home standing Tatars were only at half strength after facing Wolfsburg just three days earlier.
Coming home, Yuri Semin will accept nothing less than all three points. In the friendly confines of Lokomotiv Stadium, his men were not defeated at any point during the 2009 campaign while also allowing a league-few 10 goals.
The Lokomotiv Stadium was an impenetrable fortress in 2009.
Krylia Sovetov delivered an inspired performance against Zenit St. Petersburg in front of a packed stadium, but ultimately couldn't overcome Luciano Spalletti's squad, who controlled nearly 70 percent of the possession time.
For a club in financial trouble, however, the performance greatly pleased the fans and gave the players many reasons to be optimistic in 2010.
Unfortunately for Samara, the home team has won this fixture five of the last six times, and coupled with Lokomotiv's dominance in Moscow, we'll go with that.
6. Zenit St. Petersburg (5th) vs. Spartak Moscow (13th): 1
Sunday, 21 March 2010, Petrovsky Stadium
There's no better way to kick off Rivalry Sunday. Over the past decade, the Spartak-Zenit rivalry has truly become the most heated in all of Russia. Spartak owned the matchup earlier, but has not won since Roman Pavlyuchenko left for Tottenham.
Zenit squeezed by Krylia Sovetov 1-0 in the first week, thanks to a goal from Portuguese midfielder Danny, who was playing in his first match since May—also against the Samara club. Although Zenit dominated every aspect of play, the squad obviously was still working on the new Italian system.
Spartak didn't fare so well, losing 1-0 in front of 55,000 at the Luzhniki Stadium to city rivals Dinamo. The youngest squad in Russia looked very out of sync and seemed visibly annoyed with Dinamo's physical play. Brazilians Alex and Welliton never managed to get involved in the match. Newly acquired defender Aleksandr Sheshukov had a debut to forget, receiving a yellow for a rough tackle and soon after a red for an equally as reckless challenge.
In a fierce rivalry like this, anything can happen and it normally does. But Zenit hasn't lost at home in the last eight home matches and defeated Spartak in the final week of the 2009 season at the Petrovsky despite playing with 10 men for more than half of the match.
7. CSKA Moscow (6th) vs. Dinamo Moscow (4th): X
Sunday, 21 March 2010, Luzhniki Stadium
CSKA was frustrated for the most of the night against defensive-minded Amkar, who managed to keep a clean sheet for the most of the evening. But just as time was evaporating, Keisuke Honda came to the rescue and saved the Army Men. Their next task is against a much-improved Dinamo side that has already seen several of it's winter signings pay off.
Dinamo shocked Spartak at the Luzhniki Stadium with a goal from veteran midfielder Igor Semshov, who returned to the club in January after a one-year stay in St. Petersburg. Fellow signees Andriy Voronin and Edgaras Cesnauskis looked lively. Even a minor head injury to center back Alexandru Epureanu couldn't keep the Moldova captain out of action.
They'll look to do more of the same facing another city rival at the Sparrow Hills palace. They also have history working in their favor, as the visiting team has won eight of the last 10 meetings. Fresh off their Champions League triumph, CSKA should be brimming with confidence and looking to continue their success at home. But this new-look Dinamo squad should be good enough to steal a point.
8. Tom Tomsk (1st) vs. Rubin Kazan (3rd): 2
Monday, 22 March 2010, Trud Stadium
While it was hardly a match that stuck out in anyone's mind when the schedule was released, there's suddenly a little more to play for when the two sides meet up on Monday. Both clubs recorded 2-0 victories and sit atop the league table.
Tomsk hit the jackpot as striker Sergei Kornilenko—on loan from Zenit St. Petersburg—smashed a second-half double in Rostov. Kornilenko was the Tomi's leading scorer last season when he was bought by Zenit.
Rubin on the other hand, needed to wait 88 minutes before a break in Lokomotiv's defense, but the defending champions earned the three points in Kazan even without the services of many top players. The journey for Rubin continues into uncharted waters, as the club has never been taxed this heavily with matches during a two-week span of time.
Kurban Berdiyev's squad should be decently well recovered in time to make the trip east, and they have proved to have more than adequate depth to win even without several starters. Rubin's road pedigree—they are the only team in 2009 to win 10 matches away from home—should carry them through.
The cavalry will be waiting as Rubin march into Tomsk.
Season Record: 4-4 (.500)
Current Champions: Rubin Kazan (2)
It didn't look certain for a long time, but the champions pulled out some late magic as substitute Andrei Gorbanets and Aleksandr Bukharov scored rapid fire to derail the Lokomotives. Although the Russian Champions fell deep into extra time in Wolfsburg, Rubin's title should be safe for at least another week of RPL activity.
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