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Russian Premier League in Review, Part I

8:01 PMGoalChatter

It's odd to see more than half of the season played before the winter break, but that's only one bit of the strange character the championship has taken on this year. From a failing Anzhi to a rising Dynamo and slippery Zenit, nobody could have predicted the surprises that came with the 2013-14 Russian Premier League.

Amkar, the Unlikely Stunners
One of the best defensive sides, Amkar are also the only team that has not lost a single game at home thus far. The Red-and-Blacks were one of the dark horses that gave Zenit a run for their money with a 1:1 draw, with defender Thomas Phibel opening the score, and Zenit striker Danny putting in the equalizer in the first half after a poor clearance by Semyonov. They may not have made too many chances themselves, but Amkar held off the St Petersburg side for the entire 2nd half. Keeper Narubin fended off Luciano Spalletti's goal-hungry team, causing moments of frustration for Hulk and Kerzhakov. The Perm side have also beaten Spartak, Dynamo and Kuban.

Best Away Team - Lokomotiv Moscow
The Railroaders have the best away record. They're 7-2-2 and have scored the second-most goals as visitors (22). With last season's 9th place finish and a lack in managerial stability since 2005, it was hard to picture Lokomotiv as a serious title contender. That all changed when Leonid Kuchuk took to the managerial helm. The former Kuban manager extended his 12-match unbeaten streak to two more games with the Railroaders before they fell 1:2 to CSKA in the Moscow derby. They also seemed to have trouble against Spalletti's side. Kuchuk's men more than made up for their faults, however, by beating Spartak, as well as getting two wins each against Dynamo and Kuchuk's former side, Kuban. Lokomotiv are currently tied with league-toppers Zenit and will be looking to extend their 3-game unbeaten run next year.

The Enigmatic Rostov

Hulk vies for the ball in Rostov's 2:0 win against Zenit. Photo: RFPL
They may have slowed down after an amazing start to the season, but Miodrag Bozovic's side still managed to shock us all before the winter break with their 2-0 triumph over league leaders Zenit. Striker Artyom Dzyuba, on loan from Spartak, has proven to be a great addition to the team, netting in 12 goals in 19 games and vying for the top goalscorer spot with Spartak's Yura Movsisyan. Rostov is one of the most diverse sides, with first team players from 13 different countries. One of their strong suits has been manager Bozovic, who is renowned for rebuilding teams from the bottom up. They've also got seasoned goalkeeper Croatia international Stipe Pletikosa in the mix. Despite their assets, however, the most Rostov could hope for is a solid, 6th place finish. It's a tight race, but not for the top 5. A 10-point gap separates the team from 5th-place CSKA.

FC Ural
Despite being second to last in the league table, Ural have shown they've got some pretty skilled players, like defender Chisamba Lungu. They're held back by having gone through too many changes in too short a time span. They've changed managers 5 times in the past 2 years, while 16 players left the club in the last transfer window. Along with Anzhi, Ural are the only team to not have won a single home game. They've also conceded the most goals at home (25) of any team, and, along with Volga, have conceded the most goals overall (37 in 19 games). With the impending onslaught from teams in the top and middle of the table, getting out of the relegation zone is highly unlikely.

Rubin Kazan
Despite retaining their status as the best defensive side in the PL, Rubin seemed to have forgotten about the other half of the equation. With 24 points after 19 games, they're in a 4-way tie with Krylya, Kuban and Rostov. Their challenge: balancing their Europa League efforts (they were unbeaten in the group stage) with the domestic championship.

Predicted end-of-season finish: 9th

CSKA Moscow
If anything, the first half of the season showcased both the strong and weak points of the Army Men. They can be creative without a striker, incorporating the midfield and defensive players, but that strategy is by no means a universal solution against any opponent. You can get a slew of set pieces against a defensive side, but an attacking team that forces the Army Men to leave behind too much space by pushing the whole team forward wreaks havoc. With Vagner Love in China and Doumbia's difficulty in recovering from last season's injury, Leonid Slutsky's side will continue to lose points and any hope in a top 4 finish if not for some shopping in the winter transfer window.

Predicted finish: 4th

Terek Grozny
3rd from last in the relegation zone, Terek failed to follow up their amazing run last season (they ended in 8th, the best result in the club's history). Things began to go downhill after manager Stanislav Cherchesov left to Amkar Perm, currently 7th in the league compared with 14th-place Terek. The difference is quite noticeable: along with Anzhi, Terek are the only other side that have not won a single away game this season. With so much more competition this time around, it's highly unlikely they'll make it higher than 10th.

Dynamo Moscow
Dynamo players celebrate their goal against Zenit. Photo: RFPL
The Moscovites appear to have plenty of highly-skilled players after the last transfer spree, yet continue to lack quality in the attack. Petrescu will be faced with the reality of not only noticing but using the younger talent. The ever-successful reserves offer a few interesting options, as do young players that are currently on loan. Only 5 points separate the Moscovites from leaders Zenit, but the former tend to lose points against the bigger sides, as evidenced by their poor performances against city rivals Spartak and Lokomotiv. Dynamo lost a handful of points in an odd series of draws, sometimes conceding late equalizers or coming back from a 1-goal deficit.

Predicted finish: 4th or 5th

The only team to have not won a single game (0-8-11), it's almost impossible to fathom that this team finished 3rd last season. With more than half the team gone after the last transfer window and two managerial changes, Anzhi are starting from scratch in mid-season. Eventually, the management decided that fifth time's a charm and invited former Krylya manager Gadzhi Gadzhiev to take over from Rene Muelensteen. The familiar route may be just what Anzhi need to step it up next season, but they'll have to duke it out in the relegation playoffs first.

Zenit St Petersburg
Hulk leads Zenit past CSKA. Photo: RFPL
Currently top of the league, Zenit seem to be going strong. But as Shakespeare's Hamlet put it, "I know not 'seems'". Spalletti's side have had a slew of problems within the club, leading to an uncoordinated style of play on the pitch. As a result, they run the risk of falling apart when it's least expected. As the only RPL side left in the Champions League, they'll have the added pressure of attempting to survive the knockout round. Yet Spalletti has kept his side surprisingly consistent. As long as they have their secret weapons in the form of Hulk and Danny and make good use of the transfer window, it's improbable that too many a side will pose a threat to Zenit's domination.

Spartak Moscow
The red-and-whites finished 4th last season, and are currently title contenders thanks to Valeri Karpin. Away games against the bigger sides, however, seem to be Spartak's achilles heel. Of the few games they've lost so far this season, their biggest was the 4:2 defeat away against Zenit (ironically, Karpin's men beat Spalletti's with the same score in the 16th round). They've had a similar issue against CSKA, whom they beat 3:0 and later lost 1:0 against. The only two teams Karpin's men haven't beaten or drawn against? Amkar and Lokomotiv.

The better of the Kransodar sides, FC Krasnodar have shown considerable progress under new manager Oleg Kononov. Despite a good record at home, they did manage to get a 0:1 win against Rubin at Kazan. A solid mid-table team, they left for the winter break on a high note, beating CSKA 1:0 at home.

Tom Tomsk
Tom Tomsk was one of the teams that looked promising after the last transfer window, having acquired 19 new players, mostly from other RPL sides. Unfortunately, the club failed to extend the contract of then-manager Sergei Perednya, who led the team to 2nd place and promotion to the Premier League just one season after their 15th-place finish in the First Division. So far, Tomsk have lost 12 out of 19 games, the most of any team this season.

One of the other interesting mid-table teams, Volga caused quite a few problems for Dynamo in the opening game of the season, leading 0:2 for 25 minutes away at Arena Khimki and having to deal with a draw. Unfortunately, the rest of the season was a series of defeats and small victories against their less-savvy opponents. They lost their last two games before the break, one of which was a devastating 6:1 defeat at Spartak. Volga will need to step it up in 2014 to avoid the relegation spots. The transfer window provides a perfect opportunity to strengthen both the defense and the attack.

Krylya Sovetov Samara
Along with Rubin, Krylya are the ultimate mid-table team, having drawn the most games (9 out of 19) since the season began. Having survived last season's relegation playoffs for another shot at the PL, the ever-unstable Krylya now find themselves in a 3-way tie with Kuban and Rostov, but are unlikely to finish above either side.

FC Kuban
Kuban Krasnodar are a formidable side in the attack, and they made it known in their draws against Zenit and Spartak. They have goalkeeper and team captain Belenov to thank for much of their success as well. Kuban will likely remain near the middle of the table at the end of the season.

Predicted end-of-season table:

1 Zenit*
2 Spartak
3 Lokomotiv
5 Dynamo
6 Krasnodar
7 Rostov
8 Amkar
9 Rubin
10 Kuban
11 Krylya
12 Volga
13 Terek
14 Ural
15 Tomsk
16 Anzhi

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