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Russian Premier League preview

CSKA Moscow sneaked to their second straight league title last season. Can they do it a third time?
CSKA Moscow sneaked to their second straight league title last season. Can they do it a third time?

Momentum is an enticing narrative in football. It is something not well understood. We can't quantify how a team achieves momentum or what leads to a loss of momentum. But despite its intangible quality, we have a feeling it exists.

Liverpool displayed a blistering bout of momentum in the final third of the English Premier League last season before a defeat to Jose Mourinho's Chelsea rocked them sufficiently to collapse away to Crystal Palace. It then shifted to Manchester as City capitalised. Yet where Liverpool failed, Leonid Slutskiy's CSKA Moscow succeeded, going on a relentless march to the Russian title and overtaking the favoured Lokomotiv Moscow and Zenit Saint Petersburg.

Like a long-distance runner making a late charge, edging past their rivals at the line and then looking around as if it was foolish for anyone to ever question their victory, CSKA reached the top of the table for the first time with just two games remaining. After languishing in the Europa League places at the lengthy winter break, Slutskiy's side lost just one game, the opening fixture of the season's second stage. From then on, an 11-match winning streak saw CSKA retain the title, one point ahead of Andre Villas-Boas' Zenit Saint Petersburg.

So what does the new season hold?

What to watch in 2014-15

How will AVB's first full season go?
The onus now shifts from the new capital to the old. Zenit Saint Petersburg, the league's big spender, have disappointed in the past two seasons, failing to lift the title since 2011-12 amid internal strife and training ground fallouts. The appointment of Villas-Boas in March removed a number of old hostilities between Luciano Spalletti and the senior players, as Zenit went on to win AVB's first six games in charge, narrowly missing out on the league title.

Andre Villas-Boas has done well since joining Zenit, as his side is expected to win the league.
Andre Villas-Boas has done well since joining Zenit, as his side is expected to win the league.

Now, in his first full season in St. Petersburg and with the luxury of a full preseason with his players, Villas-Boas' single aim will be to bring the title back to Romanov's old capital. And he will be expected to deliver.

Years of hurt for Spartak
Zenit's story elides with Spartak Moscow. The grandee of the Russian Premier League, Spartak still hold the record for the most titles in independent Russia, with nine wins. Recently appointed manager Murat Yakin is the latest in a long line to be tasked with ending their 13-year title dearth.

This time, though, they have managed to acquire the best central midfielder in the league: Roman Shirokov. After falling out with just about everyone at Zenit, Shirokov was finally nudged out the door by the club's hierarchy this summer, giving Spartak their most talented midfielder since the all-conquering days of Yegor Titov. Not being one for the moral high ground, revenge will most certainly be on Shirokov's mind.

Torpedo rise from the ashes
At the bottom end of the table we have a happier, minor fairy tale in action. After playing in amateur competitions as recently as 2009, Torpedo Moscow have finally reclimbed the Russian ladder to reach the Premier League. A grand old man of the Russian game, Torpedo suffered financial catastrophe, demotion and amateur status in 2009, completing the long trek back from obscurity with a playoff victory over Krylia Sovetov Samara.

Without major investment, however, the Moscow club may struggle to hold on to its place in the Russian Premier League ahead of its more wealthy counterparts.

Notable signings

Aside from their messy divorce with Shirokov, Zenit have made perhaps the most impressive signing of the summer in the form of World Cup finalist Ezequiel Garay. A key part of Argentina's run in Brazil and a central figure in Benfica's recent success, Garay can be seen as a sort of coup for the Russian Premier League. More importantly for Villas-Boas, the Argentine will fill the menacing hole that Bruno Alves left in 2013, adding solidity and elegance alongside Nicolas Lombaerts.

Ezequiel Garay, a World Cup runner-up with Argentina, is a major coup for Zenit.
Ezequiel Garay, a World Cup runner-up with Argentina, is a major coup for Zenit.

The other highlight of the summer transfer window comes from Dinamo Moscow, too often the least successful of the Moscow clubs. The reported signing of France star Mathieu Valbuena for 7 million euros -- the agent and club have yet to announce -- can be seen as a statement of intent. Their savvy raid of declining Anzhi Makhachkala last season, yielding Chris Samba, Igor Denisov, Yuri Zhirkov and Aleksandr Kokorin, complemented a promising squad, with the addition of Alexander Buttner this summer cementing that. Add to the mix the talented coach Stanislav Cherchesov and the money of Boris Rotenberg, a judo partner of Vladimir Putin, and Dinamo could be the dark horse for success this season.

As is the case with both Zenit and Dinamo, the majority of business conducted in Russia this summer has been either incoming from other leagues or intra-Russian transfers, with few significant departures. A notable exception to this is Zenit's loss of left-back Cristian Ansaldi to La Liga champion Atletico Madrid, leaving them light of quality but sufficiently covered at that position thanks to Domenico Cristico and Milan Rodic. This trend reflects the bugbear of national team boss Fabio Capello, compounding criticism that the country's best players are absent from the world's best leagues.

Who will win it all?

As ever, Zenit are the early favourite. With the problems of the past few seasons overcome, Zenit should be able to avoid the periods of disaster that plagued the previous two campaigns. The trend has been a spectacular start and end to the season but a disaster somewhere in the middle. If AVB can keep the Zenit train on the tracks, the quality of the squad should see it through.

Pacy striker Seydou Doumbia led the league in scoring last season.
Pacy striker Seydou Doumbia led the league in scoring last season.

Meanwhile, CSKA are looking to win their third successive title. Few fancy them to do it, though few fancied them to win the last two titles either. With the careful management of Slutskiy and the blistering form of Seydou Doumbia, CSKA can defeat anyone on their day. The issue for CSKA may be defence, with Vasily Berezutskiy and Sergei Ignashevich a year older and Igor Akinfeev returning from a horrendous World Cup performance.

Battle at the bottom

The top of the Russian table isn't the only place for intrigue. Russia makes use of a relegation playoff system, with the bottom two automatically relegated. Then 13th and 14th in the Premier League face third and fourth in the second tier to determine whether their positions will be swapped.

The end of the 2013-14 season illustrated all the excitement of this system, with second-tier Torpedo Moscow and FC Ufa defeating Krylia Sovetov Samara and Tom Tomsk, respectively, ensuring that the Premier League would see four new sides for 2014-15. They are joined by the automatically promoted second-tier champion Mordovia Saransk and runner-up Arsenal Tula.

It would seem that the four newly promoted teams would be among the favourites for the drop, though Mordovia's recent Premier League experience may weigh on their side. Including Terek Grozny and Ural Yekaterinburg, which narrowly avoided the relegation playoff last season, yields six teams that could fill the bottom four places. Two of those six will obviously survive, possibly four given the relegation playoff system.

Eliot is a European football writer with a special interest in Eastern Europe, the Premier League and Serie A. He has written for ESPN, The Daily Mirror, Four Four Two, and others. You can follow him on Twitter @EliotRothwell