After a hectic 18-month transitional season, the Russian Premier League is all set for its first autumn-spring championship. Despite the calendar switch, the list of clubs likely to be leading the charge for the title has a familiar look about it. The chasing pack is stronger than ever, though, and UEFA.com analyses the runners and riders ahead of a much-anticipated campaign.
Title favourites: FC Zenit St Petersburg, FC Spartak Moskva, PFC CSKA Moskva
It is hard to see beyond last season's top three. With Zenit's aim to become one of the ten strongest clubs in Europe, domestic glory is a must. However, Luciano Spalletti's men did not impress in the Russian Super Cup, losing 2-0 last week to FC Rubin Kazan. They will start the season with the same squad as last after a quiet summer on the transfer front, though they should have new recruits in place by the time the UEFA Champions League group stage begins.
CSKA have retained their key personnel, including the coaching staff, despite off-season speculation. The signing of full-back Mário Fernandes was announced in April, so CSKA fans have spent the last few months anxiously awaiting more arrivals. Runners-up in five of the last seven campaigns, Spartak finally seem to have everything in place to go one better. New coach Unai Emery has four solid strikers at his disposal and has scouts hunting defensive reinforcements.
Top-three hopefuls: FC Dinamo Moskva, FC Lokomotiv Moskva, FC Rubin Kazan, FC Anzhi Makhachkala
Rubin head a strong chasing pack. Their back line, already one of the best in Russia, has been bolstered by Iván Marcano, while attacking midfielder Carlos Eduardo has returned following a lengthy lay-off. They are, however, still hunting a prolific frontman. Anzhi secured UEFA Europa League football last season, but lacked the stability needed to realise their UEFA Champions League dreams. "We need to go forward step by step and break into the group of traditional leaders in Russia," said coach Guus Hiddink.
The aim of the Dinamo board this season is a top-three finish, although they may not have the strength to hit their target this time around judging by their spring form and the departures of key men Aleksandr Samedov and Andriy Voronin. Meanwhile, there has been another mini-revolution at Lokomotiv, with Slaven Bilić taking over the coaching reins and several promising recruits signing on with the Railwaymen.
European contenders: FC Kuban Krasnodar, FC Krasnodar
Upon taking over at Kuban in December 2009, Dan Petrescu was asked to deliver European football within three years. Things are progressing according to schedule for the Romanian. In his first term he guided the team to the top flight and followed that up with a top-half finish last season. They will have their work cut out, however, to improve on that – Lacina Traoré's departure for Anzhi means Kuban have lost their star striker. Unlike Kuban, Krasnodar, founded in 2008, do not have European aims. However, the southern outfit impressed as they finished ninth in their debut top-flight campaign and are no longer underdogs.
Relegation battlers: FC Amkar Perm, PFC Krylya Sovetov Samara, FC Volga Nizhny Novgorod, Mordovia Saransk
Amkar, Krylya Sovetov and Nizhny Novgorod have all had their problems of late, mainly financial. Mordovia, meanwhile, are top-flight debutants. Saransk will attract much attention from neutral fans after the city was included on the provisional list of 2018 FIFA World Cup venues.
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