Russia's marathon enters final stages
© AFP

The unprecedented third and final stage of the Russian Premier League, the final phase of their marathon 14-month season, gets underway this weekend after the winter break.

The climax to the one-off elongated campaign, which is aimed at allowing Russia to fall into rhythm with the big European leagues by running through the winter rather than summer, sees Zenit St Petersburg in pole position to defend the title they won in 2010. With a two group format – comprising of eight-team championship and relegation sections – concentrating rivals together, FIFA.com runs the rule over the competition as the action heats up with 12 games to play.

The defending champions
Zenit may lead the standings, six points clear of CSKA Moscow, but after losing influential playmaker Danny for the rest of the season to a serious knee injury, they are unlikely to cruise to the title. The last-minute loan signing of former fans' favourite Andrey Arshavin from Arsenal is aimed at plugging the gap, but the big question is whether he can rediscover the zest that propelled him to North London.

Zenit begin 2012 with unarguably the tie of the weekend when they face CSKA in St Petersburg, with both teams coming off the back of positive results in the UEFA Champions League; Zenit having secured a win over Benfica and CSKA a late 1-1 draw against Real Madrid. However, with the likes of Roman Shirokov, Darko Lazoivc and goalkeeping stalwart Vyacheslav Malafeev all out, the hosts will start the year under strength.

The contenders
CSKA will see themselves as the main rivals to Zenit's crown, but defeats in the two opening matches of the phase prior to the winter break saw them lose ground on the leaders. The return of Keisuke Honda and Tomas Necid from injury will no doubt be a boost, particularly having lost Vagner Love to Flamengo in a €10million switch, and with Seydou Doumbia leading the scoring charts, the Moscow giants have the firepower to challenge.

City rivals Dinamo and Spartak sit on CSKA’s heels, trailing the leaders by seven and eight points respectively, but will still see themselves in with a shout of loosening Zenit’s grip on the trophy. Dinamo have set out their intentions as the biggest spenders of the latest transfer window, splashing out in particular on former PSV Eindhoven star Balazs Dzsudszak, who had failed to ignite at Anzhi Makhachkala. Meanwhile, Spartak have brought in former Lokomotiv Moscow favourite Diniyar Bilyaletdinov from Everton to give their squad some added depth.

The outsiders
All eyes have been on big-spending Anzhi during the winter break, but less because of their transfers than a change in leadership. They brought in former Lokomotiv boss Yury Krasnozhan just prior to the new year, but he stepped down midway through February without taking charge of a competitive team game. Guus Hiddink was the high-profile figure who took over the reins, and while the title looks a bridge too far, with Anzhi trailing by 13 points, seven points off a UEFA Champions League spot, achieving a place in Europe's top competition would doubtless be seen as a triumph.

Ahead of them, though, sit Rubin Kazan, who occupy the third UEFA Europa League place, and Lokomotiv. Having crashed out of Europe at the hands of Olympiacos, Rubin will be focusing solely on returning to the continental stage. The lack of a consistent striker has been a problem for both, so goals may be the deciding factor in whether they can keep pace with those above them.

The relegation race
With a competitive format seeing four from eight either going straight down or being left to battle it out in the end-of-season relegation play-off, no side can afford to relax in the crucial 12 remaining games. FK Krasnodar’s 11-point lead on fifth-placed Kryla Sovetov Samara sees them with ample breathing space, but with FK Rostov - who occupy second - just five points ahead, there is no room for complacency.

Tom Tomsk, languishing ten points from safety, face a huge task to get out of the relegation picture, but with every other game a six-pointer, they could claw their way back. Having been the most active of any side in the league during the latest transfer window, with a raft of free transfers and loan deals coming in and out, it is clear they are ready to fight.

Star signings
The return from north London of Arshavin and Roman Pavlyuchenko will be pivotal to both their new sides’ fortunes. Zenit coach Luciano Spalletti will be hoping the former can strike up a partnership with free-scoring forward Alexander Kerzhakov, while the latter will look to add potency to Lokomotiv’s strike-force. Ahmed Musa’s move to CSKA from VVV-Venlo gives the Nigerian winger the chance to bolster his reputation after starring at the FIFA U-20 World Cup last year.

Whether Dzsudszak can justify his €19million price-tag remains to be seen, but Dinamo will hope he and Rubin’s hardworking midfielder Christian Noboa can propel them into the Champions League, or even further. Hiddink could arguably be considered the biggest new arrival to the league, and with previous success in Russia – coaching the national side – he will be out to recapture his element. Blackburn Rovers captain Christopher Samba, who joined Anzhi shortly afterwards, will no doubt add to the solidity and organisation Hiddink tends to impose.

Players to watch
Samuel Eto’o has enjoyed a fine start to his career in Russia, scoring more than two in every three games for Anzhi, but fellow African striker Doumbia is the front-man who has really lit up the league. Tearing through defences with pace and fine finishing, he could yet inspire CSKA to snatch the title from Zenit should he carry his scoring form into 2012.

Bruno Alves will look to remain imperious at the back for the leaders, who have the most watertight defence in the league. Alongside similarly ever-present full-backs Nicolas Lombaerts and Alexander Anyukov, Zenit's backline may be pivotal in the final run-in, especially in the absence of attacking orchestrator Danny.