Russia’s Premier League has become of more and more interest to football fans across the globe since the rise of big spending Anzhi Makhachkala. This tiny club has started splashing out on some of the biggest and most expensive names in football. Their squad now boasts amongst others Mbark Boussoufa, Christopher Samba, Yuri Zhirkov and of course Samuel Eto’o. These players, combined with the appointment of Guus Hiddink as manager mean Anzhi are on their way to establishing themselves as a dominant force within Russia. They are some way off the big boys in the league but higher calibre players are being attracted to this division each year.
The league’s format is strange in that it normally runs whilst other teams are taking a break to avoid playing in the harsh Russian winters. The 16 teams play each other twice in 2011 and then the league splits into two groups of 8. The teams play the other teams in their group home and away again with the top group deciding the European places and the title and the bottom group deciding relegation. This is going to change for the 2012/13 season with plans to alter the schedule so it runs from autumn to spring.
The competition has traditionally been dominated by the three clubs from Moscow; CSKA, Lokomotiv and Spartak. Between them they have won 14 out of the 20 titles with Spartak claiming nine of those including six in a row between 1996 and 2001.
More recently however the league has seen the emergence of Zenit St Petersburg as a real threat to the top teams and they have recently confirmed the retention of the title they won last year. They are led by Russian international Alexsandr Kerzhakov who has 22 goals this season and 10 assists. The lethal striker is ably supported by Danny and Danko Lazović who have contributed 21 goals and 15 assists between them. The three have been joined by Arsenal midfielder Andrei Arshavin who has been a useful addition since his return to the club where he started his career.
CSKA and Spartak are behind Zenit along with the least successful Moscow club Dinamo. The Dinamiki have overseen the return to form of German international Kevin Kuranyi who has 12 goals and 8 assists this term. Their captain, ex-Liverpool forward Andriy Voronin has 11 goals this season and midfielder Igor Semshov has matched Kuranyi’s tally. Spartak are missing the goals from danger man Welliton and have relied on their own trio for goals this year. Between them Emmanuel Emenike, Ari and Artem Dzyuba have hit 32 goals and without them Spartak would surely be lower than their current fourth spot.
They are all of course some way behind arguably the best player in the division Seydou Doumbia. He joined in January 2010 and this year he has scored 28 goals in 40 appearances. He is quick, strong and a deadly finisher. Barcelona and the top sides from England have all watched him so a move is not out of the question. He has hinted a couple of times in the press that he would like a move to Arsenal. Of course he is just one of many fantastic players currently plying their trade at CSKA. Despite losing the title to Zenit I still believe that their team is stronger than that of the champions. Behind Doumbia is a midfield trio of Keisuke Honda, Alan Dzagoev and Zoran Tosic. The three are all quick and technically brilliant players and all link up superbly. They have of course been missing inspirational captain Igor Akinfeev for the majority of the season due to injury and the world-class keeper is facing a battle to be fit for the Euros. Despite strong interest from Chelsea Akinfeev has consistently reiterated his loyalty to his home town club and this is surely a big plus for CSKA as they look to regain the title next year. In front of the goalkeeper lie exciting young left back Georgi Schennikov and the excellent Berezutski twins.
Russian football is expanding all the time and whilst I feel it is unlikely that they will perform as well as they did in 2008 the Russian team will still be a threat this summer. The league is churning out new talent all the time and keep a lookout for third highest scorer Lacina Traore. The young Ivorian is a very powerful player and a move to central Europe is extremely likely either this summer or next. The next step for Russia is to have their teams performing season after season in the Champions League and it cannot be too long before that happens.