This is a seminal year in the life of Russian football. Or, to be more accurate, a seminal year-and-a-half. Having formerly played a summer schedule more conducive to the country’s climate (Tomsk isn’t the nicest place to play in February—less comfortable, even, than those legendary nights in Stoke), the Russian Premier League is in the process of shifting to an autumn-spring calendar more in line with its UEFA cousins, and they’re getting there by playing a two-part, 18-month programme this season.
The second phase of the extended campaign began on Friday and will continue through next weekend before the 16 teams in the top flight take a three-month winter break prior to the grand conclusion. It seems even the oligarchs who control the RPL can’t stop the snow.
It works like this:
Similar to what happens in Scotland near the end of each season, the league has been split in half for the second phase. Everyone has already played home and away against everyone else—typically a complete schedule—and the top eight sides will go into the Championship Round, where they’ll play home and away again. Points earned over the 30 matches of the first phase still count, which means teams ranked second thru eighth still have some catching up to do. The European places will also be determined in this round. Relegation is settled in the Relegation Group, which includes the sides who finished in the bottom half of the table in the first phase.
Zenit St. Petersburg stumbled out of the gate in their Championship Round debut. Two points clear atop the standings after the first phase, the holders played to a scoreless draw at home to Samuel Eto’o and Anzhi Makhachkala on Friday. Anzhi, for what it’s worth, qualified for the Championship Round as the eighth-place team, 13 points back of Zenit.
The two dropped points provided CSKA a chance to go joint top, but the capital side, who last won the title in 2006, were dumped 2-1 at home by 2008 and 2009 winners Rubin Kazan. First phase leading scorer Seydou Doumbia (who also has four goals in the Champions League this term) pulled CSKA back to level terms after Alan Kasaev’s opener in the 16th minute, but winger Alexander Ryazantsev’s tally just after the hour-mark proved the match winner. The win moved Rubin ahead of Kuban Krasnodar into sole possession of sixth place, a point back of Lokomotiv Moscow and a spot in next year’s Europa League.
Lokomotiv, meanwhile, were leapfrogged by Spartak Moscow on Sunday as Emmanuel Emenike’s first-half brace powered the hosts to a 2-0 win at the Luzhniki. (Emenike, a 24-year-old Nigeria international, joined Spartak at the end of July after a puzzling, two-month stint at Fenerbahce in which he didn’t make a single appearance.) Spartak, with the three points, are now just two points back of third-place Dynamo Moscow, who were the weekend’s big winners.
Igor Semshov and Aleksandr Kokorin scored eight minutes apart in the first half to propel Dynamo to a 2-1 win over Kuban Krasnodar at Khimki Arena. Losers of just one of their last six, Dynamo are only a point adrift of CSKA Moscow and a Champions League qualifying position heading into the final round of matches before the winter break.
The RPL will revert to its usual single-table format for the 2012-13 season, which will begin in July. Assuming the league continues to break for two or three months going forward, teams contesting one of Europe’s two continental competitions still won’t be playing domestic football when the knockout rounds begin in February. That disadvantage simply can’t be helped. But the change in schedule will allow Russia’s transfer windows to better align with those of other European leagues and make more sense within its own match calendar.
Follow Jerrad Peters on Twitter @peterssoccer