Thursday July 22nd, 2010

There has never been much sentimentality in Russian football, and before the World Cup was even over its season had resumed, despite a summer heat wave that saw Saturday's game between Spartak Moscow and Rubin Kazan delayed five hours to try to avoid the worst of the conditions. No rest here for the handful of Russia-based players who were in action in South Africa.

Zenit St Petersburg played host to Anzhi in the first game back from the summer break. League-leading Zenit sputtered slightly, showing the rustiness its rivals must have been hoping for, and with three minutes remaining was only drawing 1-1, Vladimir Bystrov's neat early finish from a splendidly precise Alexander Kerzhakov pass having been canceled out by Rasim Tagirbekov's second-half header. But then Anzhi goalkeeper Nukri Revishvili spilled a shot from Alexander Anyukov that bounced just in front of him, and Konstantin Zyryanov had the simplest finish from three yards to give Zenit the win.

Two weeks later, there is a still a sense that Zenit is slowly easing itself into form. It beat Alania 3-1 on the road, thanks largely to two Danko Lazovic free kicks, the first worked to Bystrov, who still seemingly has not entirely won over fans after returning to the club he controversially deserted for its great rival Spartak, and the second smashed straight in. Then came a Danny-inspired 2-0 home victory against Sibir in a repeat of May's Cup final. Zenit is yet to lose under former Roma manager Luciano Spalletti and is unbeaten since last October.

A strong squad just got even better. If there was a criticism of Zenit in the early part of the season, it was that the attack lacked a focal point. Bystrov is a threat coming in off the flank and Portugal's Danny is sublimely gifted, but Kerzhakov has increasingly become a maker rather than a taker of chances, and that free kick against Alania was Lazovic's only goal since his March move from PSV Eindhoven. Zenit, though, moved to counter that deficiency this week by signing Alexander Bukharov from Rubin Kazan. He is a big, strong center forward, often mocked by purists, but 16 goals last season showed he is more than just a target man. Not only will he give Zenit added muscle up front, but his signing also strips one of Zenit's rivals of a key player.

Rubin, the defending champion, has once again been more than the sum of its parts, sitting seven points off the lead in third place. But the loss of Bukharov will surely hurt. On Saturday, it produced a typically resolute performance at Spartak Moscow, taking a third-minute lead as a cross from Ecuadorean midfielder Christian Noboa evaded everybody and scooted in at the near post, and then sitting deep and frustrating a Spartak side that seems all too easy to frustrate these days. Ibson was unfortunate that his looping header just before halftime clipped the bar and came out, but Spartak lacked thrust. Brazilian front man Ari was poor; Alex, his compatriot, made little impression as a playmaker, and the only sustained threat came from overlapping fullbacks Sergei Parshivlyuk and Fedor Kudryashov. By midway through the second half, though, Rubin was so in control that even its famously stern coach, Kurban Berdyev, who habitually sits on the bench worrying a set of prayer beads, looked composed. Kudryashov's late dismissal for a second yellow card confirmed Rubin's win and Spartak's third straight defeat.

Given its high hopes, this has been a miserable season for Spartak, which stands seventh, 14 points behind Zenit. It seems only a matter of time before Valeri Karpin, the club's director general, replaces himself as coach. That he has not already done so is probably less to do with any sense of self-preservation (he is reportedly drawing a single salary for fulfilling the two roles) than through a realization that one of the reasons for Spartak's decline is that it has changed coach nine times since Oleg Romantsev's departure in 2003. An academy that over the past couple of years has produced the likes of Jano Ananidze and Pavel Yakovlev gives reason for hope, but their development would be better managed in a successful team.

Spartak's travails leave CSKA as Moscow's only realistic hope of preventing the title from going to the regions for a fourth consecutive season (just one of the 15 championships before that left the capital, a significant change that perhaps reflects a more general process of decentralization within Russia). CSKA, though, is six points behind in second, was well-beaten in a 2-0 loss to Zenit at home in April and defeated lowly Krylya Sovetov only 1-0 on Monday thanks to an early penalty from Alan Dzagoev.

The 20-year-old attacking midfielder, whose struggles for pitch time became such an issue under Zico's management last season, has been excellent this year, at times almost carrying the side. The indications are that Dzagoev, after so many of the great young Russian hopes of the past decade have faded away, might actually be the real thing. He is technically gifted, good in the air and can finish. Most important, he seems both calm and intelligent, and the fact that until recently he took a bus to training says much for the groundedness instilled by his parents in Beslan.

CSKA was far from its best on Monday, but perhaps that's only to be expected in the heat of Samara. Japan's Keisuke Honda appeared sluggish after the World Cup, while 20-year-old Tomas Necid was also subdued after showing great promise earlier in the season. Serbian winger Milos Krasic looks all but certain to leave, but another Serbian winger, albeit one who plays on the opposite flank, Zoran Tosic, has been signed from Manchester United.

There is a sense of a fine side waiting to emerge, but given CSKA's run of fixtures, it needs to do so quickly. On Sunday, CSKA faces Spartak Nalchik, fourth but fading, then there is the big Moscow derby with Spartak, a lesser derby against Dinamo, Anzhi at home and, on Aug. 21, the return against Zenit. There will be a third of the season remaining after that game, but already it looks crucial.

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