Back to business for EURO stars
While Spain is still nursing the hangover from the party that followed Luis Aragones' side's UEFA EURO 2008 triumph, some of the tournament's players are already back in thick of domestic action.
This resumption of hostilities is most intriguing in Russia and Sweden, whose domestic leagues broke for the continental showpiece with surprise pacesetters still perched atop their respective summits. Rubin Kazan lead the way in Russia, where reigning champions Zenit St Petersburg went into yesterday's meeting with Tom Tomsk - their first game since 19 April - lying third from bottom, 18 points adrift of the unlikely leaders.
Captain Sergei Semak, a key player in the Russia side that reached the EURO semi-finals, has been just as influential in the rise of the team from the Tatarstan region; a side that won promotion to the top flight for the first time as recently as five years ago.
Kurban Berdyev's shrewd management and unashamedly defensive style proved vital to Rubin's early season success, which included away wins at Zenit and Lokomotiv Moscow, but so too did funding from local businesses and regional government that enabled the club to splash out on the likes of Semak and Gokdeniz Karadeniz. The latter, who featured intermittently for Turkey in Austria and Switzerland, became his country's most expensive-ever export when he moved from Trabzonspor for 8.7 million euros, further bolstering a squad that also benefits from the experience of veteran strikers Savo Milosevic and Serhiy Rebrov.
On Saturday, it looked for a long time that two goals from another of Rubin's imports, Ecuadorian midfielder Cristian Noboa, would be enough to take them nine points clear at the top, but an 88th-minute penalty from Ruslan Ajinjal rescued a point for hosts Krylya Sovetov Samara and allowed the chasing pack to narrow the gap. Second-placed Amkar Perm, another early season sensation, did just that with an impressive 1-0 win at Lokomotiv Moscow the following day, while Zenit provided a statement of their intent with a thumping 5-1 win at home to Tom Tomsk.
Amkar are now within four points of Rubin with a game in hand, while Zenit - despite their lowly position - have played five games fewer than the leaders, owing to the break they were afforded to prepare for their triumphant semi-final and final matches in the UEFA Cup. Winning all five, though certainly a tall order, would see Dick Advocaat's side close to within a point of Rubin, although the fixture backlog caused by May's postponements means that yesterday's match was the first of eight the reigning champions must negotiate before 30 July
"I have never played such a tough schedule," said captain Anatoliy Tymoschuk, who scored twice in yesterday's victory. "But our task is to reclaim first place in the table."
Arshavin on his way
At least Zenit's Russian international contingent returned from EURO 2008 with confidence boosted by their unexpected run to the last four, with Vyacheslav Malafeev, Roman Shirokov, Aleksandr Anyukov and Konstantin Zyryanov having played their part in the surprise success of Guus Hiddink's side. Conspicuous by his absence, however, is the club's sought-after talisman, Andrei Arshavin, who has been given a leave of absence by Advocaat while the club haggle with his high-profile suitors.
Barcelona, Chelsea and Arsenal have all been strongly linked with a player who lit up the continental finals, with Zenit's Dutch coach admitting that Arshavin's departure is all but inevitable. "We can't keep hold of the player if someone offers good money - in the region of £20m to £25m," said Advocaat. "Andrei won't play until things are all cleared up."
In Sweden, meanwhile, the Allsvenskan resumed last Tuesday with Kalmar in pole position to claim the first top flight title of their 98-year history. Nanne Bergstrand's side missed out on the championship by a solitary point last season and went into the EURO break having claimed 25 points from their first 11 fixtures. A 5-1 away win at Gefle saw them pick up where they had left off, but on Saturday there were signs of fallibility when only a last-minute equaliser from David Elm rescued a point at home to Halmstads.
Henrik Larsson's Helsingborgs remain in fourth, eight points behind the leaders with a game in hand, but the most likely threat to Kalmar appears likely to come from either reigning champions IFK Gothenburg or Elfsborg, both of whom lie four points off the top. The latter, with EURO 2008 representatives Anders Svensson and Johan Wiland back in the fold, also have a game in hand, and they underlined their class over the weekend with a 2-0 win over Scottish side Hibernian in the UEFA Intertoto Cup.
Tension and drama appears certainly appears all but guaranteed as these intriguing title races gather momentum over the course of 2008.