The Russian Premier-Liga is splitting in two ahead of a unique development: a winter break. Whereas past Russian, and indeed Soviet, football seasons followed the calendar year, from 2012/13 the competition will run from summer to summer, so an 18-month transitional championship is being played.
FC Zenit St Petersburg, PFC CSKA Moskva, FC Dinamo Moskva, FC Spartak Moskva, FC Lokomotiv Moskva, FC Kuban Krasnodar, FC Rubin Kazan and FC Anzhi Makhachkala have now broken away from the rest and will play each other twice for the title and European places; the other eight clubs will compete to avoid relegation. With two more rounds scheduled before the end of the year, and the remaining 12 games taking place in the spring, UEFA.com looks at the story so far.
The best team: FC Zenit St Petersburg
The champions look on course to retain their title having turned a seven-point deficit to CSKA into a lead of two. Luciano Spalletti's side have lost just three of their 30 matches and have scored more (59) and conceded less (25) than their rivals. Aleksandr Kerzhakov alone has 16 goals, with Danko Lazović close behind on 11.
The surprise package: FC Dinamo Moskva
Miodrag Bozhovich did not inspire the required improvement following his appointment in autumn 2010 and was soon replaced by Sergei Silkin, little known outside the club having coached the reserves for ten years. Few expected much to change but how wrong they were: Dinamo have hit winning form, producing some of the division's most attractive football. Former Liverpool FC forward Andriy Voronin – out of favour under Bozhovich – has become the key to leading Dinamo into the top three.
The strugglers: FC Tom Tomsk
The Siberian team started the season decently and by the summer were 12th, seven points clear of bottom club PFC Spartak Nalchik and with Pavel Golyshev among the championship's top marksmen. But financial problems began to affect performances and the replacement of coach Valeri Nepomniachi with the less experienced Sergei Peredna did not help. Six consecutive defeats contributed to a Russian-league record run of 12 goalless matches, which only ended at the weekend in a 2-1 loss at FC Rostov. Tom Tomsk are now four points adrift of 15th-placed Nalchik.
The goalscorer: Seydou Doumbia
For much of the last six years Vágner Love has been CSKA's unrivalled goalscoring supremo, yet this term has seen the emergence of a pretender to his crown. Doumbia failed to register until the fifth round of matches but has not looked back since, scoring in eight of his last ten league outings, including back-to-back hat-tricks against Anzhi and Nalchik. The Ivorian international has already plundered 23 top-flight goals in addition to four UEFA Champions League group stage strikes.
The best player: Aleksandr Kerzhakov
While many consider Doumbia to have been the best player of the campaign, the 23-year-old had an advantage over his main rival in the scoring charts. Russian international Kerzhakov injured his ankle on 2 October and has not played since. However, 16 goals and seven assists from the 28-year-old striker, who is not expected to return before the new year, remain a major factor in Zenit's supremacy.
The newcomer: Lacina Traoré
The year 2011 will be remembered for the notable arrivals of Roberto Carlos and Samuel Eto'o (Anzhi), Domenico Criscito (Zenit) and Demy de Zeeuw (Spartak Moskva), yet FC Kuban Krasnodar possibly made the shrewdest buy of all. Although the 2.01m-tall Traoré flew in under the radar from CFR 1907 Cluj, the 21-year-old Ivorian soon won over supporters with 14 goals in 26 league matches.
The farewell: Andrei Tikhonov
The captain and symbol of the Spartak Moskva side of the 1990s ended his playing career at the club where he made his name after returning as a player-assistant coach. The 41-year-old featured in two games, creating a goal in his final appearance – a 3-0 defeat of PFC Krylya Sovetov Samara on 18 September. Though he will be sorely missed as a player, coach Valeri Karpin has pledged that Tikhonov will one day take the helm of the team he represented in 192 league outings.
The return: Yuri Zhirkov
Having failed to nail down a starting place at Chelsea FC during two seasons in England, the Russia flanker joined Anzhi in August. "Fantastic" was how the 28-year-old described the welcome he received in Makhachkala. Many Russian fans were more sceptical about his motives for moving and Zhirkov was even booed on his next national-team appearance. Although emotions have cooled since the summer it is difficult to determine the impact he has made at the Dagestan club, where he has been ever-present in a hitherto underwhelming Anzhi campaign.
The trend: The sack
Eleven teams changed coach during the first phase of the league. While Moscow's Dinamo and Lokomotiv got good results from such a switch, most sides saw no noticeable improvement. Only Zenit, CSKA, Kuban, Rubin Kazan and FC Krasnodar have kept faith in their managers. The situation is more complicated at Spartak Moskva where Valeri Karpin officially resigned as coach but continues to combine the positions of general director and caretaker coach.
The setbacks: Serious injury
The season has been marked by several serious injuries to players. In April, FC Rostov goalkeeper Dejan Radić ruptured his kidney in a collision with FC Terek Grozny striker Zaur Sadaev, which resulted in surgery to remove the damaged organ. CSKA and Russia No1 Igor Akinfeev, meanwhile, was also sidelined for six months after landing awkwardly following an incident with Spartak Moskva forward Welliton.
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