In England, Leicester City are on the verge of history, with Claudio Ranieri leading the Foxes from a relegation battle last season into a fight to become the most unlikely of champions with just a handful of games to go. With a seven point advantage over nearest rivals Tottenham, the bookmakers make them comfortable favourites to lift the title – and with the likes of Jamie Vardy, Riyad Mahrez and N’Golo Kante on top form, it would be a brave man to bet against them.
But the English leagues are not the only place where fans of the underdog can get behind a group of unlikely heroes. In Russia, with seven of the 30 Premier League matches remaining, archetypal provincial club Rostov – who, like Leicester, faced a battle with relegation last year and needed a play-off to survive – sit just a point off leaders CSKA Moscow. No club other than CSKA or third-place Zenit has won the title since Rubin Kazan’s double in 2008 and 2009. Before then, you have to travel back to 1995 for the last winner from outside Russia’ two biggest cities.
And yet, they are in with a chance. The man who masterminded those two Rubin wins – Turkmen tactician Kurban Berdyev, who by appearances at least is the most nervous man in football – is the man charged with leading Rostov over the line, and in doing so has called on the services of several veterans who played a key role in those title triumphs. In any other nation, Berdyev would have been rewarded for his unprecedented success in Kazan with a position at a national powerhouse, but his reputation for defensive football has scared the traditional heavy-hitters away. Their loss has been Rostov’s gain.
The fact remains, however, that they sit second, sandwiched between Zenit and CSKA with just a point either side of them. Ahead of them, CSKA are aiming for their third title in four years and should be out of sight, but a major wobble in November saw them collect just one point from a possible 12 and allow the chasing pack to draw near. They have the advantage of having already travelled to both Rostov and Zenit in recent weeks – although both games saw them leave empty-handed on the wrong end of a 2-0 scoreline – and will go into their next game with momentum behind them after a 7-1 thrashing of relegation favourites Mordovia in their last outing. If Leonid Slutsky’s men can hold their nerve, the title could be returning to Moscow.
Zenit will have other ideas. The St Petersburg club, by far and away the most resource-rich in the country, have found form under outgoing manager Andre Villas-Boas, winning their last four in a row and unbeaten in six after a poor start to the campaign. With the likes of Hulk, Artem Dzyuba, Danny and new signing Aeksandr Kokorin leading the line, their attack is the potent in the country. Zenit still have to travel to Rostov, but will fancy their chances of hunting down both the inconsistent Army Men and the provincial upstarts in search of their fifth national crown.
Outside the top three, it is more difficult to see a winner, although in terms of points there is no doubt that neither Lokomotiv Moscow nor Krasnodar can be entirely ruled out, sitting just four and six points from top spot respectively. Both clubs will have their eyes on Europe rather than the title, but with just seven games to go a late run of form would place either side in genuine title contention. For Lokomotiv, who endured such a turbulent 2014/15 season, it would be a return to the glory days of Yuri Semin and the 2002 and 2004 seasons. For Krasnodar, a late surge up the outside to lift the championship would be the culmination of a remarkable progression for the young club, which was only formed in 2007. They have won their last two games 4-1 and 6-0, so are certainly giving it a good go.
So, what will decide the destination of the 2015-16 title? If, as it so often does in Russia, it comes down to resources, Zenit are surely the favourites. They are in strong form, have the deepest squad in the country, and in AVB have a manager keen to both redeem himself after sackings at Chelsea and Tottenham, and to go out with a bang after a turbulent couple of years on the banks of the Neva. On the other hand, with their last two titles CSKA have proved themselves well versed in capitalising on the mistakes of others, and have a wealth of title-winning experience in their squad. Rostov, meanwhile, should not be counted out – with a superb season under their belt and expectations more than exceeded, they can play without fear in their remaining seven games.
One aspect which must be considered is the fixture list, which is for each team as follow:
CSKA: Lokomotiv (A), Dinamo (H), Ural (A), Terek (H), Ufa (A), Krasnodar (H), Rubin (A)
Rostov: Kuban (A), Zenit (H), Mordovia (A), Lokomotiv (H), Dinamo (A), Ural (H), Terek (A)
Zenit: Spartak (H), Rostov (A), Kuban (H), Anzhi (A), Mordovia (A), Lokomotiv (H), Dinamo (A)
Lokomotiv: CSKA (H), Amkar (A), Spartak (H), Rostov (A), Kuban (H), Zenit (A), Mordovia (H)
Krasnodar: Terek (A), Ufa (H), Anzhi (H), Rubin (A), Krylya Sovetov (H), CSKA (A), Amkar (H)
Also worth considering is the participation of CSKA, Zenit and Krasnodar in the domestic cup, with the former and latter taking each other on in the semi-finals between the first and second league games of the list. Zenit, on the same day, will be favourites going to Amkar, meaning a likely final between two of the title contenders.
However, looking at the fixture list, if all five teams hit their straps, we are unlikely to see too many points dropped in matches not directly between the contenders. Spartak and Terek, lurking in sixth and seventh place, are wildcards and could cause problems in the matches they are involved in, but elsewhere the opposition should not pose too great a threat. Dinamo are a club in crisis and a shadow of their former selves, Kuban are likewise in a mess, Mordovia are as good as down and the likes of Amkar, Krylya, Ufa and Krylya are all at the wrong end of the table. Only Rubin – again, a pale imitation of past glories – and Ural can consider themselves safe, but have little to play for and compare poorly to the top five.
I generally shy away from predictions, but I would not be surprised if two factors are crucial – Zenit’s trip to Rostov on April 24th, and the fact that all of the top three play away on the final day of the season – CSKA at a Rubin side known for their ability to frustrate, Zenit in a no-love-lost clash with Dinamo, and Rostov at a Terek team who could still be chasing Europe. On paper, it is the St Petersburg side who have the easiest run-in by opponents’ league position, but with 21 points still to play for, it is anybody’s title. Just like Leicester in England, Rostov will gain a huge number of fans should they actually pull it off.