2012-13 Russian Premier League Halfway Point Review: Race for the Title


False Nine editor, Andrew Belt, assesses the front-runners of the Russian Premier League in the first of three 2012-13 review pieces of the campaign so far as the teams ease into the winter break…

Two weekends ago, the Russian Premier League broke up for the safety of warmth during winter as harsh weather comes to the country.

There’s nothing unusual about this but the extent of the winter break marks the first Russian Premier League season playing to the European calendar and 19 games into the inaugural season, teams won’t resume the final third of the season until 9th March.

To accommodate this, the opening game of the season took place on 20th July – just a few weeks after the Euro 2012 final – and Slaven Bilic, having coached Croatia in the international tournament’s ‘Group of Death’, took on his first assignment as new Lokomotiv Moscow boss away to the newly-promoted Mordovia Saransk on the opening evening of Russian Premier League football.

A tricky game that, ultimately saw Vedran Corluka score the winner and Roman Pavlyuchenko make his debut, led to a 3-2 triumph for the Railroaders and earned Bilic his first three points as Lokomotiv boss. Since that exciting Friday night in July the Russian Premier League hasn’t stopped as it clamoured to fit in all the fixtures before a typically long hibernation period over New Year and the Orthodox Christmas they celebrate in their Julian calendar…

The opening night: Vedran Corluka heads Lokomotiv's winner

The opening night: Vedran Corluka heads Lokomotiv’s winner

Zenit St. Petersburg have made the biggest headlines throughout the season. Winners of the 2010 and 2011-12 Russian Premier League, Luciano Spalletti’s team started the 2012-13 season in a similar vein, going unbeaten in their first five games, with an impressive 5-0 win over Spartak Moscow and 3-1 defeat of CSKA Moscow highlights in a run which only saw points dropped away at Guus Hiddink’s improving Anzhi Makhachkala side.

A wobble in the second-half at home to Rubin Kazan saw Kazan recover from a goal down to win 2-1 at the Petrovsky Stadium before Zenit beat Mordovia 3-0 away from home to hold joint top spot in the league with surprise package, Terek Grozny, by the September international break. It was at this point that the club made world headlines as they captured Hulk and Axel Witsel from Portuguese Primeira Liga teams, Porto and Benfica, respectively for a combined sum of £64 million.

Rather than spur the club onto greater things, the transfers provided the catalyst for great turmoil at the club. September began with an anti-climactic 2-0 defeat at home to Terek, with Hulk and Witsel making their debut as substitutes in the game, then Zenit were thrashed 3-0 away at Malaga in their opening Champions League game before goals by Hulk (his first) and Roman Shirokov earned Spalletti’s team a face-saving 2-2 draw at lowly Krylia Sovetov.

Frosty reception: Hulk and Witsel have proven controversial purchases at Zenit

Frosty reception: Hulk and Witsel have proven controversial purchases at Zenit

Hulk’s and Witsel’s high-profile signings were causing tension in a settled squad used to success, as Zenit’s system was slightly altered to accommodate their new stars, and in the aftermath of the draw to Krylia in Samara, Alexander Kerzhakov was sent to join Russian national football team’s captain, Igor Denisov, in the reserves with Spalletti saying certain players were destabilising the club. Kerzhakov returned to the first-team squad for the following weekend for the 1-1 draw with Lokomotiv Moscow. Denisov’s ire over pay meant he didn’t return to the set-up for two months after making his grievances known.

Form started to pick up again but new controversy was created on 17th November at an away match versus Dynamo Moscow. Trailing leaders, CSKA, by three points in second place and losing 1-0 to Dynamo with 36 minutes played, home goalkeeper, Anton Shunin, was injured by a pyrotechnic device throw onto the pitch by a member of the visiting Zenit fans. The match was immediately abandoned, Dynamo were awarded a 3-0 win and Zenit were the first club in the competition’s history ordered to play two home games behind closed doors. The incident even provoked a response from Russian Prime Minister, Dmitry Medvedev, who said: “[It was] not an incident but a crime and furthermore a premeditated crime. People need to be put in prison for this sort of thing.”

A draw away to Malaga and win at the San Siro versus AC Milan were not enough to keep Zenit in the Champions League, despite considerable investment from the Russian Government-owned oil company, Gazprom, and they will play in the Europa League knockout stages alongside Rubin Kazan and Anzhi. A tumultuous first-half of the 2012-13 season for Zenit ended with two successive draws at home to CSKA and Anzhi in front of an eerily-deserted Petrovsky Stadium but, despite everything, Spalletti’s men remain part of the three-team hunt for the league as rank outsiders five points behind leaders, CSKA.

Understandably, CSKA Moscow will be happy with how things are going for them in 2012-13 during the break. The Army Men are two points ahead of closest challengers, Anzhi, and appear to have finally found their most compatible team under Leonid Slutsky. The pressure was on for CSKA after losing their Champions League spot to bitter rivals, Spartak Moscow, last season and the 2012-13 campaign didn’t exactly get off to the best of starts.

A nervy observer: CSKA coach, Leonid Slutsky

A nervy observer: CSKA coach, Leonid Slutsky

An opening day 1-0 win over Rostov was followed up by an away defeat to Amkar Perm and then a home loss to Zenit. The result in Perm was particularly alarming for CSKA and an exit from the Europa League orchestrated by AIK Solna from Sweden at the Play-Off stage in the same month had many wondering whether Slutsky’s time at the club would be up. A six-game winning streak in the Russian Premier League put paid to that and when the run was ended at the end of September by Dynamo Moscow, CSKA were only one point behind the leaders at the time – Zenit.

The defeat to Dynamo was the catalyst for a seven-game unbeaten run in the league before Anzhi triumphed in Makhachkala at the beginning of December to draw level on points with CSKA. However, a 2-1 win over Mordovia Saransk put breathing space between the two sides and Yevgeni Giner’s investment sit happily on top of the pile.

CSKA look certain to take the bragging rights in Moscow and it appears as though their absence from Europe is benefiting the camp with fans likely to take particular delight in Spartak’s implosion this season in both Russia and Europe, having successfully wrestled CSKA’s capital city crown off the Army Men only seven months ago.

Slutsky continues to challenge Rubin Kazan boss, Kurban Berdyev, for the title of Russian football’s most nervous-looking man on the sideline, rocking back and forth with the detached nature of a trauma victim, but his troops are starting to gel, and frighteningly so. Russian defensive trio, Igor Akinfeev, Vasili Berezutski and Sergei Ignashevich, have contributed to CSKA having the meanest defensive record in the league, Rasmus Elm, Zoran Tosic, Aleksandrs Cauna and Alan Dzagoev have excelled in midfield and ammunition has been provided by Keisuke Honda and 20 year old Nigerian striker, Ahmed Musa, with nine goals apiece.

Ever since Russian billionaire, Suleyman Kerimov, started ploughing a considerable amount of roubles into Anzhi Makhachkala, football fans have wondered how far he would take an improbable exercise in delivering a successful team in the war-torn Republic of Dagestan. Perhaps ahead of schedule, Anzhi are amongst the pacesetters and have made the region’s Dynamo Stadium and Moscow’s Lokomotiv Stadium, which they use for games in the Europa League, fortresses, having not lost ‘at home’ in 17 games in all competitions this season.

'The Wild Division': Anzhi celebrate Traore's goal against Liverpool

‘The Wild Division': Anzhi players celebrate Traore’s goal against Liverpool

Chief among the tormentors ‘on Anzhi’s patch’ are Samuel Eto’o, the world’s most handsomely-paid footballer, and 6’ 8” striker, Lacina Traore, who’ve scored nine and eight times respectively when the Wild Division have played a home fixture. A less consistent record away from home has prevented Anzhi from taking control of the division but Guus Hiddink will be pleased with how his first full season with the club is going. The popular Dutchman is hoping for one last hurrah in his career as he retires at the end of the season.

Hopes of European success remain at Anzhi after progressing through the group stages but the press attention afforded to the club ahead of high-profile clashes with Liverpool sadly didn’t live up to their billing. Their best football has been played in Russia but maybe they will start to improve in the Europa League as they become more comfortable with combining both pursuits.

That a football team from Dagestan could be competing in the Champions League next season is quite incredible but the prospect looks more and more likely. The squad is a mix of international quality (Eto’o, Traore, Lassana Diarra, Christopher Samba, Joao Carlos, Jucilei, Mehdi Carcela Gonzalez) and home grown talent (Ali Gadzhibekov, Rasim Tagirbekov, Kamil Agalarov, Serder Serderov).

To understand perceptions of Anzhi in Russia, it’s worth noting Yuri Zhirkov’s reception when playing for Russia a week after moving to Makhachkala from Chelsea. One of the key cogs from Russia’s eye-catching performance at Euro 2008, he was heckled by sections of the crowd in Moscow for the friendly versus Serbia. Anzhi are like the uninvited guest to the top table but if Kerimov can stick around the club will be fighting for honours for years to come.

Will CSKA return the Russian Premier League trophy to Moscow for the first time since 2006? Will Guus Hiddink’s swansong as boss result in Anzhi making history in Russia and dance to the tune of Kerimov’s roubles? Or will Spalletti somehow bring some unity back to the Zenit camp and win his third, and most impressive, title under his tutelage?

Who will hold the trophy aloft like Zenit did last season?

Who will hold the trophy aloft like Zenit did last season?

These will be the questions dominating the thoughts of fans of all three clubs as Russian football and the weather turns dark over winter. Three months of inactivity, save for the odd Europa League match, breaks up the oddest of season formats but when light returns to the country, who will be victorious in 2013?

As it stands:

1. CSKA Moscow – 43 points; 2. Anzhi Makhachkala – 41 points; 3. Zenit St. Petersburg – 38 points (all played 19 games)

Follow Andrew on Twitter: @andrey_belt

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