With the Russian Premier League kicking off this weekend, expect drama aplenty along the banks of the Volga and Neva as the big guns from Moscow and Saint Petersburg bid to topple surprise champions Rubin Kazan from their throne.
The three Moscow heavyweights, namely Spartak, Lokomotiv and CSKA, may be the most successful sides in Russian football history, but 2008 winners Zenit are every bit as anxious to restore the power balance in a nation which finds itself eighth on the latest FIFA/Coca-Cola World Ranking. The contenders have wasted no time in talking up their chances of seizing the crown from a club which only gained promotion into Russia's top flight six years ago.
"We're all set for the big kick-off," Zenit's Pavel Pogrebnyak told FIFA.com. "We know we've improved enormously, which is why we've made it our aim to win every competition we're taking part in. I think we'll win at least one trophy, but we'd prefer to win all of them."
Despite several departures from the squad, the striker is confident his side are capable of reclaiming their crown under the leadership of Dutch coach Dick Advocaat. Star player Andrei Arshavin eventually signed for Arsenal, while Ukrainian midfielder Anatoliy Tymoschuk is moving to German powerhouse Bayern Munich in the summer.
Last season's UEFA Cup winners reacted swiftly, however, by bringing in Portuguese defender Fernando Meira from Turkish Champions Galatasaray for around six million euros, making him Russia's most expensive signing of the year. Zenit were also able to entice Russia international Igor Semshov and Hungarian star Szabolcs Huszti to the Petrovsky Stadium.
Expectations high in Moscow
Zenit will not have much time to accommodate these new arrivals, though, as Advocaat's charges get their season off to a start with an away trip to Spartak Moscow on Sunday. The team from the capital are chasing their first title in eight years and finished a disappointing eighth in the table last season. Even so, coach Michael Laudrup is confident the sleeping giants can end that long barren spell, and will be looking to new Brazilian signings Rafael Carioca and Alex to help in this regard.
Spartak's city neighbours can look forward to somewhat easier opening fixtures. Lokomotiv take on Khimki and will be desperate to prove that last year's seventh place finish was merely a hiccup, while CSKA travel to Saturn. Under new coach Zico, the Russian Cup holders have already shown they are a force to be reckoned with after an impressive 2-1 extra time win over Rubin Kazan in the Super Cup last weekend. The Brazilian coach will be pinning a sizeable portion of his hopes on 18-year-old playmaker Alan Dzagoev, who is sure to dazzle Russian crowds for years to come.
In a title race which promises plenty of twists and turns, Rubin Kazan still appear to be the team to beat. The surprise package from Tatarstan prefer to play down their chances, though, proclaiming a top-three finish as their aim for this season. Perhaps it is this reserved and modest approach that has allowed them to punch above their weight recently.
Humility aside, Rubin have managed to hold on to the vast majority of their championship-winning squad, and have every right to believe that Russia's UEFA Euro 2008 captain Sergei Semak and Turkish star Gokdeniz Karadeniz will inspire them to even more success this term. For the reigning champions, the days of enjoying their status as underdog are now well and truly gone, however, and anything less than a win against newly-promoted Kuban Krasnodar in Round 1 will be a huge disappointment.
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