Russia ready for return
© AFP

Almost three months after title-chasing Zenit and Anzhi Makhachkala fought out a 1-1 draw in Saint Petersburg, the Russian Premier League returns this weekend with a number of new faces lining up for their respective clubs.

The league is a little over halfway through its fixtures in its new format, with a transitional 2011/12 allowing the league to come into line with other European competitions. In the opening third of 2012/13, CSKA Moscow established a slender lead over Anzhi at the summit.

Reigning champions Zenit, despite the big summer arrivals of Axel Witsel and Hulk, are three points behind Anzhi, with Kuban Krasnodar and Spartak Moscow the only other realistic challengers to the top two. At the bottom, Mordovya Saransk and Alania Vladikavkaz are adrift of the rest of the division, with just nine and 11 points respectively.

The landmark signing in the winter transfer window came for Anzhi as Willian arrived from Ukrainian giants Shakhtar Donetsk. Chairman Sulemain Kerimov beat off competition from around Europe to seal the €35m signing and, speaking to FIFA.com after his arrival in Russia, the Brazilian midfielder seemed relaxed about his price tag.

“I can’t put pressure on myself when I go out there,” he said. “I’ve got to let things happen naturally so that I can show [the club] made the right decision in spending that money. The club has got a big future. They’re signing players, putting together a great squad and competing with the richest clubs in Europe, while also fighting it out for the league championship.

“We’ve got a strong and well-drilled squad. I’ve come here to do the same that I did at Shakhtar: to play well, win titles and take the club as high as they can go.”

Defensive reinforcements
Despite adding to their attack, Anzhi lost their defensive lynchpin Christopher Samba to English Premier League side Queens Park Rangers. They replaced him with the loan signing of Sevilla defender Emir Spahic, who has played for a number of Russian sides in the past including Lokomotiv Moscow and Torpedo Moscow.

Zenit also decided to strengthen their backline, with the addition of Portuguese defender Neto. The centre-back made an impressive start to his career in Italy with Siena and, having only signed for the Serie A side in the summer of 2012, made the switch to St Petersburg to join compatriots Danny and Bruno Alves.

With the best defence in the division (17 goals conceded in 19 games), CSKA went about strengthening their forward line, with the club bringing back Brazilian Vagner Love, who said on his return that he was “happy to come back home” after leaving the club last winter. The striker enjoyed a fairly fruitful year back in his homeland with Flamengo.

French midfielder Yann M’Vila made a surprise switch from Ligue 1 side Rennes to Rubin Kazan, who are close to the European qualification places. He also saw his ban for the French national side reduced by the French Football Federation, meaning that if M’Vila impresses in Russia - and France qualify - he could be on his way to the 2014 FIFA World Cup Brazil™.

Zenit and Anzhi already in 2013 action
Another player hoping to be going to that tournament is Alexander Kerzhakov, the Russian striker who currently leads the league’s scoring chart on ten goals. Not far behind him on nine are Alania’s Danilo Neco, who has scored almost half of his team’s goals so far, Anzhi’s giant Ivorian Lacina Traore and Spartak Moscow's new signing Yura Movsisyan, who moved from FC Krasnodar in December.

Kerzhakov has yet to get on the score-sheet in 2013, despite his side putting Liverpool out of the UEFA Europa League on away goals in the last 32. They were defeated 2-0 this week in their last 16, first leg against Swiss champions Basel.

Anzhi Makhachkala also progressed in the Europa League this calendar year, defeating German side Hannover 4-2 on aggregate. They have also faced English opposition, drawing 0-0 with Newcastle United in Moscow this week. Star signing Willian picked up a knock and is a doubt for their first domestic match in 2013, against bottom side Mordovya tomorrow.

With the top three CSKA, Anzhi and Zenit having played each other twice already, all three will be hoping for their rivals to slip up in games against opposition chasing European qualification. Zenit face just such a side, Rubin Kazan, in their first domestic game after the winter break. Sunday’s match should prove to be a highlight of the weekend’s fixtures – as well as today’s Moscow derby between Lokomotiv and Dinamo.

The Russian league resumed on Friday, with Kuban Krasnodar overcoming Volga Nizhny Novgorod and FC Krasnodar beating Amkar Perm.

Russia’s lure and impact on the European stage is increasing, and with Anzhi head coach Guus Hiddink potentially postponing his retirement, the Russian Premier League could look increasingly competitive in the coming years.