Moscow giants eye Zenit's crown
The third Wednesday in May will see the focus of the European football scene turn on Moscow as the final of the UEFA Champions League takes place in the Luzhniki Stadium. Football fever will then continue to grip the city of 10.4 million inhabitants, with the Russian national team taking part in this summer's UEFA EURO 2008 in Austria and Switzerland. And Moscow's top clubs will also be hoping to have domestic success to celebrate by then, not that they will have things all their own way.
Teams from the capital were conspicuous in their absence from the top of the Russian Premier League standings last year, quite a surprise when you consider that one of Spartak, CSKA and Lokomotiv Moscow had taken the past 14 league titles. Sprinting past all three were Zenit St Petersburg, Dick Advocaat's charges finishing the campaign two points clear of nine-time champions Spartak.
The new season began just a week ago and, while the three Moscow clubs will be looking to regain control of top spot, Zenit are heavily favoured to repeat their success. The signs all point to an absolute cracker of a season in the Russian Premier League.
Zenit and Spartak ready for duel
Most pundits have predicted a two-horse race between Zenit and Spartak. The two rivals actually faced each other last week in the season opener, which finished goalless. "I can live with a 0-0, but we were closer to securing all three points than our rivals were," said Dutch coach Advocaat. The 60-year-old has already signalled his desire to improve on last season's record of five defeats, the same number of reverses suffered by Spartak who crucially won one game fewer.
In the wake of Slovakian international defender Martin Skrtel's transfer to Liverpool, Zenit have invested in young compatriot Tomas Hubocan to help ensure Advocaat has enough squad depth to fight on two European fronts. Not only are the St. Petersburg outfit in the quarter-finals of the UEFA Cup, where they will face German club Bayer Leverkusen, they have also qualified for next season's UEFA Champions League. The vastly experienced tactician has set his sights high. "Every team is in with a chance and we're ready to give it our best shot," said the former PSV Eindhoven, Rangers and Netherlands supremo.
Spartak have been much more active on the transfer front. A few days before the Zenit opener, they picked up twice-capped German defender Malik Fathi from Hertha Berlin to add to young Argentinian winger Cristian Maidana, defender Yegor Filipenko from Belarus and the Russian pairing of goalkeeper Soslan Dzhanaev and midfielder Igor Gorbatenko. Alexander Pavlenko and Oleg Dineev also came back from loan to boost former Russia keeper Stanislav Cherchesov's options as he looks to bring the title back to Moscow.
Spartak were not the only club making a splash in the transfer market. Rubin Kazan made several signings including Turkish playmaker Gokdeniz Karadeniz from Trabzonspor and veteran goalgetter Savo Milosevic - Serbia's most capped international who has been without a club since leaving Osasuna last summer. Dynamo Moscow also pulled off a coup by picking up Russian international striker Alexander Kerzhakov, unhappy at a lack of first-team action with Sevilla.
Newly promoted Terek Groznyi are carrying the hopes of Chechnya, but the 3-0 defeat in their Russian Premier League opener at home to Krylya Sovetov Samara proved that they have a steep learning curve ahead of them. Coach Leonid Nazarenko remains confident, claiming that "we're going to prove that we're ready to go out and try to win every match".
But Groznyi were not the only disappointed team on the opening day of the season, with none of the Moscow clubs recording a win. CSKA drew 1-1 at home to Shinnik Jaroslavl while FK managed the same scoreline away to Luch-Energiya Vladivostok. Dynamo were held to a goalless draw at Tom Tomsk and cup-winners Lokomotiv, who had lost the Super Cup final to Zenit 2-1 the week before, went down 1-0 at home to fancied outsiders Rubin Kazan.
Proof, as if it were needed, that this season's title race is sure to be packed with excitement from start to finish.