The resumption of the Russian Premier-Liga over the weekend after a three-month winter hiatus signalled a change in leadership, FC Lokomotiv Moskva replacing FC Zenit at the summit.
Although the top four are separated by a mere five points, meaning the destination of the title is uncertain, what is clear with a third of the season remaining is that PFC CSKA Moskva, in fifth, are unlikely to retain the championship they won in 2012/13.
Nine points off the pace, the Army Men were beaten 4-2 on Sunday at fourth-placed FC Dinamo Moskva. It was a match which highlighted their problems in defence – they have conceded 23 goals this term, just two less than they did in the whole of the previous campaign – and one that keeper Igor Akinfeev will want to quickly forget.
CSKA, who also lifted the Russian Cup and Super Cup in 2013, had started the season like the title holders they are, winning six of their opening eight league fixtures despite the departure of Vágner Love to China's Shandong Luneng Taishan FC two games in. However, injuries and a run of one point from five matches in the autumn left them playing catch-up.
Zenit, meanwhile, have won only one of their last 11 in all competitions – a situation which prompted them to cut coach Luciano Spalletti loose this morning and appoint his assistant Sergei Semak as interim boss for the remainder of the campaign. On Sunday, a Zenit XI minus Russia captain Roman Shirokov – who unexpectedly joined FC Krasnodar on loan late last month – drew 0-0 with FC Tom Tomsk in St Petersburg, their second uninspiring outing of 2014 after a 4-2 home reverse to Borussia Dortmund in the UEFA Champions League round of 16 first leg.
Third-ranked Spartak's inconsistency was highlighted on Saturday when they succumbed 1-0 at FC Terek Grozny. Breathing down their necks are Dinamo, who recovered from two down against CSKA thanks to four goals in 20 second-half minutes from Kevin Kuranyi, Christopher Samba and Yuri Zhirkov with a brace. "I don't see any reason why we can't fight for the title," said Russian international Aleksei Kozlov, a winter arrival from FC Kuban Krasnodar. "We have a very good squad and can aim for more."
Ninth last term under Slaven Bilić, Lokomotiv are in contention for their first championship since 2004. Bilić's successor Leonid Kuchuk, his hand strengthened by summer recruits Mbark Boussoufa and Lassana Diarra from FC Anji Makhachkala, has overseen a turnaround which few expected and one that has them two points clear of Zenit after Monday's 2-1 home victory over PFC Krylya Sovetov Samara.
"We have changed in some regards because we are getting results," said coach Kuchuk. "Around 80% of people before the season started said we were not going to succeed, but bit by bit we are getting closer to our goals."
©UEFA.com 1998-2016. All rights reserved.