With temperatures plunging across the vast landscapes of Russia and Ukraine, playing surfaces across the region are falling victim to the sub-zero conditions and football takes its regular break during the winter months.
Going into the interval in Russia’s Premier League, Zenit St Petersburg lead the way courtesy of their head-to-head record against Lokomotiv Moscow with Spartak Moscow a point further back in third. Zenit’s continued success under Luciano Spalletti comes despite their battle on other fronts, most notably, their expected progression from the UEFA Champions League group stages. Portuguese midfielder Danny has been in fine form, grabbing ten goals so far to put him joint-third in the league’s goalscoring charts, in spite of a recent injury which means his last league goal came at the beginning of November.
He is level in the goal standings with Lokomotiv Moscow’s forward Dame N’Doye who has as many league goals at this stage of the season as he managed in the entire 2012/13 campaign. His upturn in form has helped Loko climb the table and his side are on course to finish in the top three for the first time since 2007, with fans dreaming of a first title in a decade. After finishing in a disappointing ninth-place last season, Lokomotiv have enjoyed a renaissance after a surprisingly shrewd managerial appointment.
Leonid Kuchuk impressed in 2012/13 by steering Kuban Krasnodar into Europe, and he was tasked with improving Lokomotiv’s fortunes after a dismal season under Slaven Bilic, who departed to Benfica in the summer. His transformation of N’Doye is just one facet of a team whose high-pressure attacking style has seen Brazilian winger Maicon and midfielder Alexander Samedov flourish.
The Krasno-zelyonyye were one of the sides to benefit from the dismantling of the Anzhi Makhachkala project, with Mbark Boussoufa and Lassana Diarra arriving in cut-price deals. Anzhi themselves are rock bottom of the top flight without a win and ten points adrift of safety. Relegation looms for a side who will be involved in the knockout stages of the UEFA Europa League after the winter break, following a third-placed finish last season. The team that impressed in 2012/13 are no longer around though, with over 20 departures following the decision by owner Sulemain Kerimov to abandon the lavish spending which brought the now-departed Samuel Eto’o, Willian, Yury Zhirkov and Diarra to the club.
Replacing Anzhi in the chasing pack are the three remaining Moscow clubs, with reigning champions CSKA surprisingly down in fifth going into the break – six points behind leaders Zenit. One of those sides hunting Zenit and Lokomotiv at the summit, Spartak Moscow, would almost certainly be leading the division if they had forward Artem Dzyuba in their ranks. As it is, the Russian forward is currently on loan from Krasno-Belye at struggling Rostov and is joint-top scorer in the division.
Familiar face leading the way in Ukraine
Across the south-western border it seems, once again, that it is Shakhtar Donetsk’s Ukrainian Premier League to throw away – with Mircea Lucescu’s side once again leading the top flight. They are five points clear of Dynamo Kyiv and Metalist Kharkiv, although the latter have a game in hand going into the break. A series of impressive performances have seen the Hirnyky storm clear of a division they have won seven times in the last nine seasons. Most notably, they racked up a remarkable 7-0 victory over relegation-threatened Arsenal Kyiv in October.
That same weekend, Arsenal’s city rivals Dynamo went a couple of goals better, with a huge 9-1 victory over Shakhtar’s neighbours Metalurg Donetsk. Indeed, Dynamo have developed an impressive brand of attacking football under Oleg Blokhin, with Andriy Yarmolenko, Jeremain Lens, Younes Belhanda and the club’s top scorer Dieumerci Mbokani all on the scoresheet that day.
While Shakhtar and Dynamo spread their goals around the team, nearest challengers Metalist Kharkiv have relied on the goals of Marko Devic to fire them up the table. The Belgrade-born forward has hit almost half of his side’s league haul to lead the scoring charts going into the winter break. Close behind the top three are Dnipro Dnipropetrovsk and Chornomorets Odesa, who have just three top three finishes between them in the last fifteen years.
The second half of each season will certainly be intriguing, and Dynamo seem to have a renewed sense of purpose after finishing out of the top two for the first time since the country’s formation last season. Matches in Ukraine are scheduled to resume on Saturday 1 March and the Russian Premier League will come out of hibernation a week later.