The Russian Premier League is gearing up for its first-ever season that runs from autumn to spring, after experimenting with a transitional 18-month championship which was eventually won by the country’s leading club, Zenit St. Petersburg.

This time round, Luciano Spalletti’s charges will face stiff competition from the four Moscow clubs – Spartak, CSKA, Dinamo and Lokomotiv – who will be trying to return the league title to the capital for the first time since 2006. Nor must we forget Rubin Kazan or an Anzhi Makhachkala side led by Guus Hiddink and Roberto Carlos and featuring Samuel Eto’o. looks at the ins and outs of the battle for Russian football’s top honour.

The defending champions
Zenit finished 13 points clear of their closest rivals in claiming their third Russian title last time round. Ahead of the new season, the club from St Petersburg have retained their key men as well as Italian coach Spalletti, who had been tipped by some to take charge of the Russian national team. However, Russia’s disappointing performance at UEFA EURO 2012 with a team dominated by players from Zenit, along with the champions’ deserved 2-0 defeat by Rubin in the Russian Super Cup, has given fans of other teams plenty of fresh hope.

Next season Zenit are expected to continue to play attacking football in an adventurous 4-3-3 formation, though there are also plans to freshen up the midfield and forward line with new players. Serbs Danko Lazovic and Aleksandr Lukovic, Hungarian midfielder Szabolcs Huszti and Italian midfielder Alessandro Rosina have all been placed on the transfer list, while Andrey Arshavin has returned to Arsenal after his loan spell. Replacements are being sought and, by the time the transfer window closes at the end of August, Zenit intend to have made several major additions to their squad.

The contenders
To date, Spartak Moscow’s main acquisition in the transfer market has been a head coach. Valery Karpin, who for the last two-and-a-half years has been combining the role with his duties as the club’s chief executive, will now be focusing purely on running the club. The man he has chosen to replace him in charge of the team is Basque supremo Unai Emery, who led Valencia to third place in La Liga three years in a row. Spartak are actively engaged in the hunt for a powerful central defender and a midfielder as they try to secure a return to the UEFA Champions League. To date, their only purchase has been Brazilian midfield man Romulo, from Vasco da Gama.

CSKA have managed to retain a very strong line-up, thus far keeping hold of the services of Côte d’Ivoire striker Seydou Doumbia, last season’s top marksman with 28 goals, and 22-year-old attacking midfielder Alan Dzagoev, who shone when scoring three times at EURO 2012. The club have also brought in Gremio’s talented Brazilian defender Mario Fernandes, who is being touted as a star of the future. CSKA are still in the hunt for a forward to share the goalscoring burden alongside Doumbia, given that fellow front-man, Czech Republic international Tomas Necid, is expected to be out of action for nine months after being injured at the EURO.

Enjoying the most success in the transfer market so far are Lokomotiv, who had a disastrous season last time round and failed to qualify for Europe. The board took action immediately by replacing Portuguese coach Jose Couceiro with Slaven Bilic, Croatia’s chief for the last six years. Lokomotiv have also added former Tottenham Hotspur defender Vedran Corluka and one of Dinamo’s best players from last season, Alexander Samedov.

And it looks as if Lokomotiv have no plans to stop there, and are continuing their hunt for big-name players. Fans will soon have a chance to see Bilic’s new-look team on Friday, when they play newcomers Mordovya in the first match of the new Premier League season.

Dinamo, Rubin and Anzhi have been more modest in their efforts in the transfer market so far. After selling Samedov, Dinamo are now expecting to lose another of their leading players in the shape of Ukrainian forward Andriy Voronin, who has been placed on the transfer list. Replacements have been acquired, with the arrival of Croatian defender Gordon Schildenfeld from Eintracht Frankfurt and Dutch midfielder Otman Bakkal, who spent last season on loan at Feyenoord, from PSV Eindhoven.

The only newcomer so far at Hiddink’s Anzhi, meanwhile, is the tall, gifted Ivorian striker Lacina Traore - one of the sensations of last season’s Premier League with some superb performances for Kuban. Rumours are still doing the rounds that more top-class European-based stars will be heading to Makhachkala, so it remains a possibility that, by the time Anzhi make their debut in the UEFA Europa League, reinforcements will be in place to give the likes of Eto’o a helping hand.

The outsiders
Alania Vladikavkaz, at one time a formidable outfit and Russian champions back in 1995, are returning to the Premier League after spending a year in the country’s second tier. Valery Gazzaev, the legendary coach who led Alania to great success in the mid-1990s, will certainly be doing all he can to help the club re-establish itself among the Russian footballing elite. This time round his involvement will come as the club’s president, while his son Vladimir is in the coaching hotseat.

Mordovya Saransk will be making their historic Premier League debut this season. As well as facing what will be a sporting challenge, the region will also be tested on the organisational front – with the small city of Saransk bidding for the right to host matches at the 2018 FIFA World Cup Russia™.

Players to watch
Before the transfer window closes, Russian clubs will definitely be making some major purchases. Even if you take those potential arrivals out of the equation, there will be plenty of stars to watch, particularly in the striking department.

A real battle is expected among the top marksmen: Zenit and Russia forward Alexander Kerzhakov, last season’s leading scorer Doumbia, new Dinamo captain Kevin Kuranyi, Spartak strikers Welliton and Emmanuel Emenike, Lokomotiv forwards Roman Pavlyuchenko and Felipe Caicedo and, of course, Anzhi’s African duo of Eto’o and Traore.

Have your say
Will one of the four Moscow clubs be able to bring the Russian title back to the capital for the first time in six years? Or could the trophy be heading somewhere new, to Makhachkala perhaps?