Zenit the team to beat in Russia
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,
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
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
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
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
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
The 20-year-old attacking midfielder, whose struggles for pitch time became such an issue under
CSKA was far from its best on Monday, but perhaps that's only to be expected in the heat of Samara. Japan's
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.