For the follower of the Russian league, the winter months can be torturous. As previously mentioned, this season is a special one for Russian football given the trnaisitonal nature of the campaign, but a long absence of football is nothing new – whilst this year the winter break has fallen two thirds of the way through the season, in previous years it has been the equiavlent of an English summer, months without the domestic game and not even the consolation of international tournaments to compensate.
Tomorrow however, the Premier League makes its glorious return, an immediate thaw after more than three months of a frozen status quo. With the last matches played on 27 November, there is little surprise that fans of the top flight teams are eager for the league to resume once more. Given the Russian Football Union’s decision not to restart the lower leagues, for another week in the case of the first division and another month for the regional third tier, this weekend will see the spotlight purely on the top sides as they continue their battle for the title, Europe and survival. Below, arranged by kick-off time, is a preview of each match to provide a snapshot into the league as it stands. All times given are in GMT, with Moscow time four hours ahead.
Saturday 3 March
10:00 – Terek Grozny (11th) vs Tom Tomsk (16th)
The league begins with a crucial game for two teams desperate to avoid relegation to the First Division. For Tom, the fight seems all but lost – six points adrift at the bottom, four wins all season and a playing squad depleted by a dire financial situation, their battle is simply to survive as a club until the end of the season. Terek on the other hand are far from safe, sitting just a single point above the final play-out position. Stanislav Cherchesov has struggled to steady the Chechen ship after Ruud Gullit’s disastrous spell in charge, and relegation would be a disaster not only for the club, but for the local authorities who have held Terek up as a symbol of stability and progress in the volatile region. Both sides need three points here.
12:00 CSKA Moscow (2nd) vs Zenit St. Petersburg (1st)
This will be the game everybody has their eye on, as Russia’s top two face off at Luzhniki in a match whcih could revive or end CSKA’s title chances. Their early season form was brought to a shuddering halt towards the back end of 2011, and Luciano Spalletti’s men took full advantage, establishing a six point lead at the top. Both sides will be bouyed by Champions League success in recent weeks – Zenit showed great determination to see off Benfica 3-2, whilst CSKA’s new singing Pontus Wernbloom struggle a memorable late equaliser to hold Real Madrid to a 1-1 draw. The leaders will also be boosted by the return of Andrei Arshavin on loan in what is sure to a titanic battle.
12:15 Volga Nizhny Novgorod (14th) vs Spartak Nalchik (15th)
If Terek and Tom is a must-win, this is even more so. Nalchik have struggled since the departure of Yuri Krasnozhan at the start of the season, and relegation is a real threat. Meanwhile, Volga’s promising start to the season was quickly halted by a poor run of form and the realisation that their finances simply could not deal with Premier League football. Like Tom, they too face a fight for existence which could require far more than to flight survival to win.
14:30 Lokomotiv Moscow (5th) vs Kuban Krasnodar (8th)
Lokomotiv are on the rise again, still in the hunt for Champions League qualification after a strong if not inconsistent season. They were knocked out of the Europa League only on away goals against a strong Athletic Bilbao side, and Jose Couceiro’s men will be determined to earn a place back amongst the continental elite next season. A win will not be easy however against a Kuban side who have arguably been the season’s surprise package, the traditional yo-yo club breaking into the top half comfortably. With Lacina Traore on the field they are always a danger, and a tight defence against the top teams will help their cause as they too seek to crash the traditional elites.
14:30 FC Krasnodar (9th) vs FC Rostov (10th)
If any of the weekend’s game can be described as a dead rubber, this is it. Krasnodar have surprised many by staying comfortably clear of relegation despite the dubious nature of their promotion, and have little to play for in the remaining months. Rostov are in a similar position, not as safe but unlikely to be drawn down into a group of teams simply unable to string wins together. The hosts will be favourites, but motivation could be an issue here.
Monday 5 March
15:30 Dinamo Moscow (3rd) vs Anzhi Makhachkala (7th)
There has been, and will be, much written about Anzhi – their money, star players and recent appointment of Guus Hiddink as manager. However, consistency has been an issue for them, whilst their opponents Dinamo have had their best season in a long time. The attacking talents of Kuranyi, Eto’o and Voronin suggest a game with the potential for goals, and with both sides needing a win in their pursuits of European football and in Dinamo’s case a late title charge, expect neither time to hold back.
15:45 Spartak Moscow (4th) vs Rubin Kazan (5th)
Despite Europe being firmly in the sights of both clubs, this is a match between two sides failing to live up to expectations. Spartak have not won the title since their incredible run at the end of the century, whilst Rubin have transformed from a genuine title challenger into top half makeweights, their recent transfers reminscent of a club resigned to fate rather than looking to progress. Neither club can be too pleased with their campaign so far, especially with European failures included, so ensuring qualification for next season is a necessity.
Tuesday 6 March
13:00 Amkar Perm (12th) vs Krylya Sovetov Samara (13th)
The final match of the round has a familiar story attached – two clubs, one traditionally strong, struggling financially, unable to bolster their squads and facing the double threat of relegation and dissolution. Just three goals separate the sides fighting to escape the play-out places, and with just 45 goals between them in 64 matches, a dull and scrappy affair is to be anticipated in a game neither team can afford to lose.
In short, it looks to be a fascinating few days of football as Russia’s realignment continues. Three points for certain teams could dramatically alter expectations, whilst defeats elsewhere could all but end a season. All there is to do is wait to see what happens next.