Chinedu Bright Dike Ezekiel Henty

10 Reasons to Watch the Russian Premier League in 2016

10:02 PMAleks Vee

by Aleks V@aleksvee

The second half of the 2015-16 Russian Premier League season kicks off on Saturday, March 5, with Krylya Sovetov hosting FC Rostov at 14:15 Moscow Time (6:15 a.m. ET). The winter transfer window has produced some exciting additions, giving us plenty to look forward to.

10. The Kuban step

Felipe Santana. Photo: FC Kuban
A struggling Kuban Krasnodar made the best out of the winter transfer window with seven free signings, including Schalke centre back Felipe Santana. The club will still need to pay its players, however. Kuban's financial woes led to a growing debt, with some players not being payed in months. The club's General Director Valery Statsenko said that the debts are currently being paid, and will soon disappear entirely. Meanwhile, manager Sergey Tashuev is tasked with crafting a new team mid-season. It'll be quite challenging, but when you're bottom of the table, there's not much else to do. Will Kuban find a money wise approach to rescue them from the impending doom of relegation?

9. The Bright cousin

Amkar Perm's new signings. Bright Dike is number 10. Photo: FC Amkar Perm
Chinedu Bright Dike, cousin of ex-Spartak forward Emmanuel Emenike, joined mid-table club Amkar Perm this winter as a free agent. The American-born Nigerian forward, who's also the older brother of FIFA U-20 Women's World Cup runner-up Courtney Dike, previously played in the U.S., where he scored 20 goals in 50 games for MLS club Portland Timbers, and had a great run at USL side Orange County Blues FC (6 goals and 2 assists in 10 appearances). It's not every day a former MLS player makes the move to Russia - Yura Movsisyan did so in 2011 - so there will be some added interest to his performance from abroad.

8. Ezekiel sees the Lokomotiv wheel

Photo: FC Lokomotiv on Twitter
The RPL's most expensive signing this winter was Ezekiel Henty, who joined Lokomotiv Moscow from Slovenian club NK Olimpija for 5 million euros. The 22-year-old winger's performance this season in the Prva Liga certainly justifies the sum - eight goals and eight assists in 21 appearances. Plus, he doubles as a centre-forward.

7. Luke brings back the Force

Luke Wilkshire. Photo: FC Terek Grozny
Amidst all the hustle and bustle of big name signings, Australian right-back Luke Wilkshire quietly made his way back to Russia. The defender joined Terek Grozny in November as a free agent, being unattached since leaving Dutch side Feyenoord in August, but was only confirmed in the roster this winter. Last season found Luke struggling with thigh injuries, yet eking out four assists in 27 appearances, including one in Europa League qualifying. At his best, he's a great asset to the back line. He'll fit right in with Terek's powerful defense - the team lost only two games this season and conceded the second lowest number of goals. A winning equation has two parts, and Luke's ability to provide opportunities in the attack can help the 7th placed team move into Europa League territory. We can all be certain the Force is still strong with this one.

6. The young and the restless

21-year-old Tashaev had a goal and an assist in Dynamo's winter friendlies.
Photo: rfpl.org
As the second youngest team in the Russian Premier League (average age: 25.9), Dynamo Moscow are entering a new era. It may be one of great difficulty, unexpected surprises, or both. After multiple seasons of transfer shenanigans, UEFA put their foot down, pushing the Moscow club to make adjustments with regards to Financial Fair Play. Dynamo ended up selling their most expensive players - mostly foreigners - and introducing salary caps. With these limits in place, they've had to rely on their U21s, some of who, like Tashaev, Terekhov, Katrich, and Obolskiy, have shown they can play well at the highest level. Dynamo's winter transfer window was marked by the departure of the overrated (Kokorin), the arrival of the underrated (Sebastian Holmen), and a blast from the past in the form of fullback Andrey Eshchenko, on loan until the end of the season a decade after his first loan spell at Dynamo. Like Kuban's Tashuev, Dynamo coach Andrey Kobelev is tasked with rebuilding a team. The only manager to lead Dynamo to a top 3 finish in the 21st century, Kobelev won't follow where the path may lead - he'll leave yet another trail.

5. FC Krasnodar's new stadium

Digital rendering of FC Krasnodar's new stadium.
Andres Villas-Boas is known for his constant complaints regarding the quality of pitches with artificial turf. It won't be long before he shows up to nail his 95 theses on the door of the Russian Football Union. Krasnodar's new stadium, however, won't make the list. The Bulls' new home, which will seat 33,000, is set to host its first game this summer. The turf is au naturale. If it opens in time to see AVB off, one thing's for sure - there's no chance of him complaining about this one.

4. AVB's farewell

Andres Villas-Boas. Photo: Instagram
Andres Villas-Boas has chosen to leave the reigning RPL champions at the end of the season. Under the Portuguese manager, Zenit won the 2014-15 Russian Premier League title and 2015 Super Cup. They are currently the last Russian team standing in Europe. They're also in the semi-finals of the domestic cup tournament. With the title still at stake, there are three opportunities for silverware. If Villas-Boas adds to his trophy collection before leaving Russia, he'll certainly fulfill his mission of "doing for Zenit what Peter the Great did for St. Petersburg".

3. Roman Shirokov

Roman Shirokov. Photo: pfc-cska.com
This is a no-brainer - the Russia national team captain's return to the club where he began his career was one of the biggest transfers this winter. The fact that he joined from Spartak Moscow only adds some extra spice to the derby. As a youth player, Shirokov never made CSKA's senior team. He has something to prove, and that means we'll likely see the return of the original, critically acclaimed midfielder who shone for Zenit five years ago. Leonid Slutsky, who is doing double duty at CSKA and Russia's NT, will be able to keep a better eye on him and help bring back the Shirokov we all love and look forward to seeing.

2. Alenichev's Spartak

"The title is that way." Photo: rfpl.org
Dmitri Alenichev said it loud and clear: He wants to win the title. Spartak are currently fourth, four points behind second placed Rostov and seven behind leaders CSKA. Despite the departure of a handful of key players like Movsisyan and Ozbiliz, Spartak only made one signing in the winter transfer window, acquiring the talented Paraguayan winger Lorenzo Melgarejo from Kuban Krasnodar. However, that signing was a good one - together with Quincy Promes, Spartak now have the season's top two goal scorers at their disposal. For a team with title ambitions, that may come in handy.

1. FC Rostov: A Cinderella Story

Kurban Berdyev: the man with a plan. Photo: FC Rostov
Rostov are the RPL's Leicester City. If Miodrag Bozovic was the Nigel Pearson to the RPL's Leicester, then Kurban Berdyev is their Claudio Ranieri, taking over and finishing what the other began. It's hard to imagine that a team that finished last season in the relegation play-offs is currently 2nd (!) behind CSKA, and has a realistic shot at their first Premier League title. Under Berdyev, Rostov have conceded the least number of goals of any RPL club this season. With 12 more games and 36 possible points left in the season, they'll do their best to keep the dream alive.

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