The 2013-14 Russian Premier League season begins on July 14th, a month earlier than its European counterparts to cater for a three-month winter break. Pre-season training and friendlies are now well underway, as is all the transfer news – and there is some talk of trading places between Russia and England.
One player who has captured the media spotlight is Odil Ahmedov. The 25-year-old Anzhi defensive midfielder has won 52 caps for Uzbekistan – currently ranked 58th in the world – scoring eight goals. Coincidentally, he has also made 52 appearances for Guus Hiddink’s side, though scored just twice.
He was voted Anzhi’s best player for 2011, though perhaps his best-known goal was for Uzbekistan in the same year. Fifty-nine minutes into his side’s 2-0 Asian Cup group match victory over Qatar, the midfielder opened with an unstoppable curling 30-yard thunderbolt, which seemed to astonish him as much as everyone else.
Ahmedov has apparently been linked with Arsenal each summer for the past three years, claiming the Gunners have watched him in every match this season.
“If I move there, I could be a huge success,” he reportedly said, adding: “But there is no bid yet."
Few in Russia would be surprised to hear that.
A chunk of Arsenal’s £70m war chest this season is likely to go to a defensive midfielder. But it is debatable if they would plump for Ahmedov when they could lure players such as Lyon captain and six-cap Frenchman Maxime Gonalons or Bayer Leverkusen’s versatile Germany star Lars Bender.
Arsenal’s last foray into Russia was Andrey Arshavin. The 32-year-old midfielder officially returned to Zenit on June 27th after his four-year contract expired, and a paltry seven appearances for the Gunners last season.
Following Russia’s disappointing group stage exit from Euro 2012, then captain Arshavin rattled the nation’s fans by saying that if they felt let down “it was their problem”. He was swiftly stripped of the armband and has not played for Russia since. Arshavin later apologised. However, this did not halt one wag from commenting on Zenit’s re-signing of the midfielder: “Now it’s your problem."
Yet Arshavin is Zenit born and bred. On rejoining the three-time Russian champions, the laconic winger said: “He was very happy to put on Zenit’s shirt again."
If he rediscovers anything like the kind of form that made the frugal Gunners splash out a then club record £15m, it could greatly boost the St. Petersburg side’s push to regain the title.
In contrast, Zenit have also reacquired the services of veteran Ukraine skipper, Anatoliy Tymoshchuk. The 34-year-old deep-lying midfielder returned to St. Petersburg after winning the treble with Bayern Munich to receive a hero’s welcome – and the armband.
As Zenit target a third title in four seasons, Anzhi are on the hunt for their first – another reason Ahmedov could well be staying put. Hiddink’s side not only want to maintain their squad but also bring back a player who was once so influential in it: central defender Christopher Samba.
The DR Congo skipper had helped the men from Makhachkala become title contenders last term, with just two defeats in their first 19 games. Then in the winter break they sold him to QPR for a record £12.5m.
The Dagestan side went on to win only three more games, still finishing third but 11 points adrift and in the Europa, not Champions, League. They also lost the Russian Cup final 4-3 on penalties as CSKA clinched the double. Worse for Samba, QPR were relegated. To help reverse this situation all round, Rangers accepted Anzhi’s £12m bid to re-sign the 29-year-old.
Hiddink has also acquired the services of outspoken Russia captain, Igor Denisov. Last autumn, the 29-year-old defensive midfielder had been linked with a handful of England’s top clubs, but last month opted to join Anzhi for a fee of €15m. The Dagestan side have also agreed a €19m deal for Dynamo and Russia upcoming striker, Aleksandr Kokorin.
Anzhi open their new campaign at home to Lokomotiv. Since Slaven Bilic left for Besiktas, Loko’s new coach is Leonid Kuchuk. Last season, the Belarusian guided Kuban to a best ever fifth and a place in the Europa League, after only taking over in January and leading the “Cossacks” on an eleven-match unbeaten run.
The 53-year-old then reportedly went AWOL, to the fury of his Krasnodar bosses, before being hired by controversial Loko chairwoman, Olga Smorodskaya. It seems the irresistible force might just have met the immovable object.
Finally, Spartak beat Ukrainian side Shakhtar Donetsk 2-0 in Moscow during a pre-season tournament. Borussia Dortmund's now latest signing, Henrikh Mkitaryan, was not among the visitors’ squad, nor was Everton-fancied Aiden McGeady in Spartak’s, with the winger out injured. And speculation abounds about CSKA’s Japan midfielder, Keisuke Honda, who also might be heading to England.
The 2013-14 season is almost underway. It should be a cracker.