The 2018 FIFA World Cup™ in Russia may be over seven years away, but already the biggest sporting event in the world is casting its mighty shadow over the host nation. As of this season, the Russian domestic league is undergoing a complete revamp, with the Premier Liga seasons being rearranged to begin in the autumn and finish in the spring, similar to other top European leagues.
The 16 top tier sides will all play one another twice before November 2011, at which point they will be split into two groups of eight. The competition then resumes in spring 2012, with the best eight teams battling it out for the title and the other eight against relegation.
"Our objective is to bring Russian football to a higher level. We'll be extending the season, improving infrastructures and synchronising with other European competitions," explained Russian FA President Sergei Fursenko at the announcement of the overhaul in September 2010.
2011/12 will therefore be the longest season in the history of the Russian League. "It does seem brutally long," admitted former Germany international Kevin Kuranyi, who joined Dynamo Moscow in July last year.
The defending champions
The 2010 season was dominated by Zenit St. Petersburg, who were top of the table on 29 of 30 matchdays, winning the most matches (20), scoring the most goals (61), conceding the fewest defeats (2) and boasting the best goal difference (+40). But all that is in the past for the Light Blues, who are now determined to achieve something only one club outside of Moscow (Rubin Kazan in 2008 and 2009) has previously managed - defending the title.
The 2008 UEFA Cup winners have refused to delve into the transfer market during the close season, instead relying on continuity within the squad. Luciano Spalletti's star ensemble have already proven their credentials ahead of the coming season by beating CSKA Moscow 1-0 in the Super Cup. "There are so many decisive factors in these games: mentality, fitness and tactics," said Spalletti after his side's triumph. "Yet in the end it all comes down to character and fearlessness. I want to thank my players for this title."
In 18 previous Premier Liga seasons, 13 titles have gone to Moscow. No wonder the four capital clubs - Lokomotiv, Dynamo, and especially Spartak and CSKA - are all hungry to bring the trophy back to Russia's largest city in 2012.
However, the Moscow quartet are without a title in four years, with Zenit (2007 and 2010) and Rubin Kazan stealing the spotlight over the past few years. Kazan have strengthened considerably in their bid to reclaim the coveted trophy, bringing in the likes of Eduardo, Obafemi Martins (currently on loan at Birmingham City) and Salvatore Bocchetti.
Although one was only promoted to the top flight in 2010 and the other has little to boast of other than a cup win in 2004, Anzhi Makhachkala and Terek Grozny have hit the headlines for reasons other than their respectively modest finishes in the league last term (11th and 12th).
The two clubs have boosted their ranks with some marquee close-season signings and are now hoping to challenge the big four from Moscow, as well as Rubin and Zenit for top honours.
The biggest transfers
Makhachkala secured the services of Brazilian FIFA World Cup™ winner Roberto Carlos, no less. The 37-year-old defender, who enjoyed spells with Real Madrid and Inter Milan earlier in his career, has immediately taken on the responsibility of captain at his new club. "I can't predict the future, but I hope I can play until I'm 40 or 42. I can still run seven to eight kilometres per match. Of course the financial aspect was a major factor in my move here, but it wasn't the only one. I wanted to be part of an interesting and ambitious project," said the 125-time international. Kevin Kuranyi added: "Players like him coming to Russia is a great advert for the league, especially in terms of encouraging younger talents."
Meanwhile Grozny opted for quality in the dugout and moved to bring in former Netherlands forward Ruud Gullit as coach. "I think it's good that these teams are strengthening. It makes the Premier Liga more interesting," continued Kuranyi, who was delighted to see his own club Dynamo invest in another former Bundesliga icon, Zvjezdan Misimovic. The Bosnian midfield ace has been signed to provide ammunition for the towering striker. "It's an important step for the team to bring in top players who can help us improve."
Players in focus
Of course there will be plenty of attention on the new arrivals in the first few weeks of the season, but it should also be remembered that there are already a number of talented stars plying their trade in the Russian top tier. Last year's top scorer Welliton (Spartak Moscow), Russian national team goalkeeper Igor Akinfeev, Keisuke Honda (both CSKA Moscow), Danny and Bruno Alves (both Zenit) all played their parts in a highly entertaining campaign last term.
Fittingly the new season begins with two cracking fixtures on Matchday 1. The Moscow city derby pits together Lokomotiv and Dynamo, while reigning champions Zenit take on Gullit's Terek Grozny.