Since 1994 and the end of experimentation with the format of the Russian top flight, Matchday 30 has been the final weekend of the season. Traditionally titles are won, European places claimed and relegation suffered on a day of agony and ecstasy for fans the length of breadth of Russia.
This year, that is not the case. Due to the authorities’ decision to bring Russian football in line with other major European leagues, this season’s championship will consist of not 30 games but 44, a one-off transitional season punctuated with a split which will be more familiar to fans of Scottish football than Russian. The top eight sides in the division will play each other home and away to solve the title and European issues, whilst the bottom half will fight to avoid relegation either directly or via a play-off – another new introduction which gives the third and fourth place sides in the First Division the chance to fight their way into the Premier League. With the bottom half of the table looking tighter than ever, it’s sure to be a fierce fight.
However, at the top end things are a little different. Whilst the Moscow trio of Dinamo, Lokomotiv and Spartak may feel hard done by, it has been clear since the beginning of the season that the title would be contested between Zenit and CSKA. The Army Men raced out of the blocks, but a midseason wobble was duly punished by Luciano Spalletti’s side and it is the reigning champions who head into the usually decisive weekend with the advantage.
On paper at least, they also have the easier fixture. Whilst Krasnodar is not a simple trip to make, Zenit have never failed to score against Kuban and hold a strong recent record. CSKA on the other hand must not only hope their title challengers slip up, but also beat resurgent city rivals Lokomotiv away if their hopes of holding the psychological advantage are to be realised.
However, the real question has to be whether that advantage exists at all. In effect there remains another half season to be played, and whilst either Zenit or CSKA will no doubt take great pride in referring to themselves as ‘Winter Champions,’ even the maximum gap of five point is, at this stage, negligible. We have already seen how sides are able to claw themselves back into contention, and even we accept 10 points as an arbitrary cut-off point, there are five teams who could theoretically lift the trophy at the end of the campaign. Inconsistency is of course a huge issue for the three chasing teams – it has already killed off the challenges of Anzhi and Rubin – but in Russia nothing can be taken for granted.
Indeed, a glance at the current standings suggest that every team in the Premier League bar one has something to be playing for with so many games left to play. As previously mentioned, five teams could potentially take home silverware at season’s end, whilst Anzhi, Kuban and Rubin will by no means consider themselves out of the running for European qualification.
At the other end of the table, a mere nine points separates rock-bottom Tom Tomsk from Rostov in the giddy heights of 10th, and with four sides entering the relegation mix this season there is much at stake – the top of the First Division looks increasingly strong, and so even the likes of Terek dropping into the second tier is not beyond the realms of possibility.
Only FC Krasnodar, the league’s most controversial inclusion after last season’s Saturn saga, are left to drift towards the finish line. Sat in 9th place, they are seven points behind the riches of Anzhi and a full nine above Rostov and the relegation struggle – a remarkable achievement for a newly-promoted side, but one which will undoubtedly leave their fans longing for an end to the campaign and a fresh start in August.
All in all, the Premier League is simply too tight to draw any conclusions, even after what is for all intents and purposes a completed league season. Whilst it would be a big shock if neither Zenit or CSKA took the grand prize, the relegation situation is too complex to pick winners or losers, and Europe remains a no holds barred shootout. Whilst the logistics of the transitional season have to be brought into question, the prolonged tension and excitement it has succeeded in generating cannot be doubted.