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The Russian Premier League (RPL) in 2012-13 will all be about which team has got the most money.
As such, two of the three main title contenders are the country’s nouveau riche teams: current champions Zenit St. Petersburg and Anzhi Makhachkala. Mid way through the last decade Zenit hadn’t won the league since 1984 and Anzhi were at best a yo-yo team. Now they both have money, and it’s likely they will finish as the top two. Zenit have the more settled side and the experience, so are my favourites to retain their title; Anzhi have perhaps tried to spend a little too much too quickly (top of their big name signings in the last year have been Samuel Eto’o and Lacina Traore). And though everyone in Russia seems to be a big admirer of their manager, Guus Hiddink, I wonder whether his best years as a manager are now behind him (see his failure to get decent Russian and Turkish national sides into major tournaments in recent years).
A manager whose best years are definitely ahead is new Spartak Moscow Coach Unai Emery. The 40-year-old is the man who has turned Valencia into regular third-place finishers in the Spanish top flight, and his move to Spartak this year has been the story that has caught the eye in the RPL. I have always been a firm believer that an excellent manager with a good team is better that an excellent team with a good manager, so if anyone is to prise apart Zenit and Anzhi it will be Spartak. I don’t expect Emery to win the RPL in his first year, but providing he adapts to Russia well and is given time by the club, they could be winners in 2013-14.
Of the other big Moscow sides – Lokomotiv, CSKA and Dinamo – it is likely to be Lokomotiv who finish highest. They have had a tumultuous few years, and have also gone abroad for their new coach – former Croatia manager Slaven Bilic. Most of his experience has, of course, been with national rather than club sides,so it will be interesting to see how he adapts. However, he has already spoken in (halting) Russian at a press conference, so seems keen to fit in and get on with the job. Lokomotiv have made some good player acquisitions in recent times too – for example Roman Pavlyuchenko and Alexandr Samedov.
The other two Moscow clubs will have less satisfying seasons, and one or the other is likely to part company with their manager by the time the first ten rounds of the season are over. CSKA’s Leonid Slutsky has kept the fans and board on his side despite a difficult season last year – perhaps as they have tended to punch above their weight in the Champions’ League under him. However, time is running out, and he needs to make one of the most talented squads in the league (including Igor Akinfeev, Keisuke Honda and Seydou Doumbia) fulfil their potential.
Dinamo had a strong season last year, though fell away at the end. In the close season two of their best players from 2011-12, Alexandr Samedov and Andrey Voronin, left, reportedly after falling out with coach Sergey Silkin. They have not been replaced adequately and in the early season Dinamo have looked one-dimensional and devoid of real attacking potential. Silkin’s future may well depend on how a couple of the side’s Euro 2012 squad members, Vladimir Granat and Alexandr Kokorin, perform.
Of the rest, the town of Krasnodar has two of the other sides to keep an eye on. Kuban’ have been a yo-yo team for around a decade, but under coach Dan Petrescu finished eighth last year. Their biggest problem may be hanging onto the coach, especially if either CSKA or Dinamo come knocking. FC Krasnodar were only formed in 2008 and have twice been promoted since – both times as the result of poorer clubs above them deciding they were unable to make the move up themselves. But this is not just another manufactured club – President Sergey Galitsky (worth around $5.5 billion) is looking to build a club from its foundations, with a focus on developing local talent. They will probably finish mid-table this season, but within three or four years could be challenging the more established sides.
At the bottom, I expect Amkar and Volga to struggle. Neither have big budgets; the former almost went bankrupt a couple of years ago and the latter only just escaped relegation last year. The two promoted sides, Mordovia and Alania, should finish just above them, in a scrap to avoid the relegation play-offs with Rostov and Krilya Sovietov. Terek Groznyy, now playing home matches at home following a return to peace in Chechnya, will finish a solid tenth.
The only team I haven’t mentioned is Rubin Kazan: a little remis, given that they were champions as recently as 2009 and have the nice habit of sticking with their manager and players. However, they also paid an alledged 17 million Euros for Obafemi Martins, who has scored three goals for them since 2010. Expect them to finish fifth…
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