Why the improving Russian Premier League continues to excite

Kate Partridge of Russia's RT reviews an exciting Russian Premier League season and highlights her winners and losers. 
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Kate Partridge of Russia's RT reviews an exciting Russian Premier League season and highlights her winners and losers.

 

Zenit St Petersburg and their Italian coach Luciano Spalletti shouldn't be too despondent about surrendering the Russian Premier League title.

Last week's league finish was one of the most exciting we've seen and certainly made for more entertaining viewing than what we've seen elsewhere across Europe.

With three games to go, Zenit were still in with a chance of defending their title and being crowned champions for a third straight time. Drawing 1-1 at struggling Rostov put paid to this hope. But the damage was done by an unusually inconsistent – and eventful – season, typified by their 3-0 technical defeat at Dynamo, after the home side’s goalkeeper Anton Shunin was hit by a flare thrown by Zenit fans.

This scandal was one of several that dogged the St. Petersburg side. In September, captain Igor Denisov was sent to the reserves for going on “strike” over a pay row. Then a “fake bomb” was left for record signing Hulk at the team’s training ground.

However, a second-placed finish and a spot in the Champions League is hardly indicative of a poor campaign.

At CSKA, a first Premier League crown in seven years will certainly help them financially and their marketability. It also lifts their fans, and – along with Anzhi’s explosive start – helped keep the league competitively interesting for the neutrals.

Anzhi started the season on an absolute flyer, losing only twice in the 19-game first “half” of the campaign, and reaching the last 16 of the Europa League in their first ever foray into Europe.

They stuttered after the winter break, losing five of their last 11 games, starting with a 2-0 embarrassment at since relegated Mordovia. Yet a comfortable third-placed finish, another season in the Europa League, and ten goals (all from open play) from Samuel Eto’o means Guus Hiddink’s men can feel pretty satisfied as they take a well-earned summer rest.

However, whether billionaire owner Suleiman Kerimov will take action after a disappointing second half of the campaign remains to be seen.

Former Everton and West Ham United defender Slaven Bilic had a tough debut season in charge of Lokomotiv.

Their ninth place finish was the club's lowest since 1991. However, after a three-year period of chronic instability that saw Loko led by six different coaches, the advent of Bilic heralded in a new era, and the Croatian probably needs at least another season in charge before his impact can be assessed.

That is if he is allowed one by controversial president, Olga Smorodskaya.

The season was a great story for Kuban, the elder of the two teams in the city of Krasnodar, who were the surprise package of the campaign after finishing a best ever fifth in the Premier League and qualifying for the Europa League.

Building on the work of coaches Dan Petrescu and the experienced Yuri Kraznozhan – who was surprisingly sacked in January – Leonid Kuchuk took over during the winter break. The Belarussian guided the “Cossacks” to an unbeaten second-half of the campaign – a run of 11 games, including four victories. The trio of Aras Ozbiliz, Ivelin Popov and Ibrahima Balde netted the goals, as Kuban finished with the league’s third best goal difference.

There were also some great individual performances from players not so well known across Europe.

My “one to watch” was US-raised Armenia forward, Yura Movsisyan. The 25-year-old moved to Spartak in December last year, after scoring 23 goals in 50 appearances for Krasnodar. He impressed all by keeping up this 2:1 ratio with his new Moscow club, scoring four in eight, as Valery Karpin’s side finished fourth and qualified for the Europa League. He ended this term joint-top scorer on 13 with, ironically, Wanderson of Krasnodar, who also had a stellar season.

Pontus Wernbloom proved pivotal to CSKA’s successful title challenge. As well as marshalling the champions from defensive midfield, the 26-year-old Swede also scored four goals in four victories – three of them the decisive strikes – in his first full campaign for the Armymen. While 22-year-old Aleksandr Kokorin’s 10-goal haul – with key efforts in the wins over CSKA and Spartak – has earned the Dynamo forward the praise not only of his coach, Dan Petrescu, but also Russia manager, Fabio Capello.

Also prolific was Anzhi’s 6’8” Lacina Traore, who bagged 12 goals. Ruslan Mukhametshin netted an impressive 11, despite playing for Mordovia. Winger Ahmed “Pocket Rocket” Musa also scored 11 for CSKA, most in the absence of the now returned Vagner Love.

The RPL continues to grow in stature and Dynamo's revival really was indicative of this season's exciting campaign. The Moscow side made a woeful start, and were rock bottom after losing seven of their first eight games. They then won ten of their next twelve, and then drew six of their last ten to finish seventh – and just outside Europe.

Just one more amazing story from an exciting Russian season.

 
West Brom mad, Kate Partridge is the sports anchor at Russia's RT and writes a weekly blog on the Premier League for rt.com. Click here for more. Also follow Kate: @KatePartridgeRT.

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