On Sunday afternoon, the Russian Premier League title went one step closer to be decided. With defending champions Zenit wrapping up a comfortable if not always convincing 2-1 win over Lokomotiv Moscow, second-place CSKA travelled to Makhachkala knowing that defeat to billionaires Anzhi would put a real dent in their title hopes and widen the gap to the St Petersburg side to a full six points.
As you would expect from such a critical encounter, neither side was at their flowing best in the early stages. The first half came and went, but immediately after the restart Anzhi struck first, Shamil Kakhiyalov netting just his third goal of the season for the hosts. However, CSKA hit back almost instantly through the in-form Vagner Love, and the game again found itself deadlocked.
The points looked destined to be shared, a result which would have done no favours to either team, that is until a moment of magic in the 85th minute. Samuel Eto’o received the ball on the edge of the CSKA, took one touch to control it and used his second to slide it through to Yuri Zhirkov racing through the defence. Goalkeeper Sergei Chepchugov came out, was beaten by the ex-Chelsea man’s pace, brought him down and picked up a red card to go with the conceded penalty. Sergei Revyakin eventually made his way off to bench to face the punishment, but Samuel Eto’o’s measured run-up and placed shot sent him the wrong way, and Anzhi clinched three points which could have a huge say in the way the season ends up.
The RPL is now on hold until March, with the long winter break becoming a permanent fixture as Russia makes its transition to the European footballing calendar. As it stands, the Championship Group makes great reading for Zenit fans – a six point lead at the top, and with no clear challenger managing to emerge from the pack. CSKA have seemed like their main rivals for much of the season, especially after such a strong start, but now just nine points separate the Army Men in second from Kuban in eighth, although admittedly there are few predicted a title push from the Krasnodar side.
As there are still 12 games to be played it is too early to suggest that Zenit are guaranteed to retain their title, however with the top sides only playing each other, the champions possess a clear advantage in that their rivals are only ever taking points off one another. Zenit and CSKA meet in Moscow in the first game back, but equally Spartak host Rubin and Anzhi travel to Dinamo – with everybody in the top group determined to make it in Europe if not push for the top, there are no games in which teams can assume three points. Even Kuban, by far and away the least fashionable team in the top half, are capable of shocking the bigger teams, especially at home, and so Zenit’s cushion is a good one.
For CSKA however, the outlook is different. Should they make their home advantage count against the champions in the next game, the gap will be halved and their hopes very much alive. Lose and the difference is in double figures, whilst wins for city rivals Dinamo and Spartak would see them slip all the way down to fourth place and outside of Champions League qualification. Equally, Rubin have finished the year in strong form, and if they pick it up again in 2012, Kurban Berdyev’s men could easily find themselves as Zenit’s main rivals for the title.
However, the team currently of most interest to observers outside of Russia is undoubtedly Anzhi, the team with seemingly unlimited resources and the determination to buy their way into the footballing elite. Their form so far this season has been inconsistent at best, but this is unsurprising given the hasty squad building which took place over the two transfer windows. With an all-star attacking unit consisting of Eto’o, Zhirkov, Boussouffa and Dzsudzsak (who admittedly has been unfortunate with injuries) to name but few, it is curious that Anzhi’s main strength this year has been at the back rather than going forward, a sign that teamwork, rather than more star power, is perhaps needed in the long term.
Currently, Anzhi sit in seventh place and are 13 points off the lead, but only seven behind their latest victims CSKA in second. Whilst the project is by no means complete, they are undoubtedly something of a wildcard in the current title race. What’s more, European football at the earliest opportunity is vital if the club is to attract more top-tier talent to their squad, and so whilst ultimate success may have to wait, reaching the top three and earning a shot at Champions League qualification is almost certainly part of the short term plan. Anzhi certainly possess the ability necessary to come out victorious against any team in the league, and with more investment sure to come in the transfer window, it would take a fool to write them off completely.
What little we can be sure of is that the end of the 2011/12 RPL season is sure to be an intriguing one. Whether Zenit continue their growth as Russia’s strongest domestic side, CSKA manage a comeback or one of the less fancied teams makes a break for the title, there is plenty going on in the top half of the table. With the enigma of Anzhi thrown in the mix, very little has been decided. It should make for a fascinating first half of 2012.