Only four points separate the top four in the Kazakh Premier League 13 games into the first campaign in which 12, rather than 14, teams compete.
The Football Federation of Kazakhstan decided to trim the division in a bid to raise the quality of the top flight. Each team will now play each other twice throughout the season before the league is split into two, allowing one half to compete for the title and the other to scrap it out for relegation.
"We have three groups of teams in the Premier League," said Holger Fach, coach of eighth-placed FC Lokomotiv Astana, who finished as runners-up last term. "There are the league leaders, the middle ones and four underdogs. We sit in the middle but we have to do our best to climb as high as we can."
Ten points better off than Lokomotiv are leaders FC Tobol Kostanay, top of the pile from the get-go. The forward duo of Nurbol Zhumaskaliyev and Ulugbek Bakaev, as well as goalkeeper Alexander Petukhov – who has helped his side to a league-best defensive record of just eight goals conceded – have both played a part in the club's rise.
At the other end of the table, FC Taraz, FC Kairat Almaty, FC Akzhaiyk Uralsk and FC Okzhetpes Kokshetau currently occupy the bottom four places, where they are widely expected to remain. Akzhaiyk coach Andrei Chernyshov, formerly, of FC Spartak Moskva, admits he was surprised by the strength of the league.
"To tell you the truth, I underestimated the level of the Premier League," said Chernyshov. "I thought that the football was not very fast here. But now I understand there are many players here who could even play in the Russian league."
Back at the summit, it is not only Lokomotiv who have disappointed, with defending champions FK Aktobe languishing in fourth after winning just six of their opening 13 fixtures. With two fewer victories to their name, FC Ordabasy Shymkent are in seventh, one place lower than where their coach, Victor Pasulko, has his sights set.
"This year we have to perform better," said the former Moldova coach, who took over at the start of this season. "Otherwise it did not make any sense to change the coach. We need to go one step forward and to claim the sixth place. We will do our best."
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