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The longest Premier League in Russian history begins on Saturday. The one-off spring-to-spring campaign is set to conclude in May 2012, with FC Zenit St Petersburg aiming to defend their title in this footballing endurance test.
The mammoth season marks a transitional stage as Russia switches from a spring-autumn to an autumn-spring system to bring it into line with the rest of Europe's top leagues. Clubs play each other home and away in the first phase of the campaign before splitting into two eight-team groups, the top one battling for the title and the bottom section bidding to avoid the drop.
Zenit took the 2010 crown, losing just twice as they ended FC Rubin Kazan's two-season spell at the top in their first term under former AS Roma and Udinese Calcio boss Luciano Spalletti. A lack of reinforcements this year has been a concern for some, but Zenit's Italian coach said: "
We have the same squad and our target remains the same as it was last season – the gold medal."
PFC CSKA Moskva have also kept faith in the squad that finished as runners-up last time out, while FC Spartak Moskva – fourth in 2010 – will look for an improvement as Irish international Aiden McGeady, a summer signing from Celtic FC, starts his first full season in Russia. Valeri Karpin's side's main weapon, however, will be Brazilian striker Welliton, Russia's top scorer for the last two campaigns.
He is one of the best forwards there is, provided that he gives 100%," Karpin told UEFA.com, as he reflected on the 24-year-old's virtues. "You can see he has the ability to perform well by the fact that he has been top scorer, scoring 21 and 19 goals [in the last two seasons]. He can score even more if he gives 100% physically and mentally. He has to want it and be ready for it."
Moscow's footballing pride has taken a hit in recent years; the capital has not boasted national champions for four seasons, with Tatarstan's Rubin still a force to be reckoned with, as coach Kurban Berdyev shifts to a more open style after three seasons of safety-first success. Rubin captain Christian Noboa feels his side can learn from what they saw of Zenit last season.
"Zenit were a different class last season because they were tactically very strong and scored very easily," he told UEFA.com. "They kept a steady standard all year, and that made the difference. We drew five matches 0-0 and lacked consistency compared to Zenit. This year we want to be more competitive. We want to put those things right, and think about winning from the first match."
However, Rubin face increased competition from other provincial sides; FC Anzhi Makhachkala turned heads with the signings of Brazilian warhorse Roberto Carlos and exciting striker Diego Tardelli, while FC Terek Grozny have grabbed their share of headlines by bringing in Ruud Gullit as coach. How those big names will fare is a moot point, but whatever happens, this campaign will be a marathon, not a sprint.
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