Jonathan Wilson assesses the current situation in the Russian Premier Division and explains why title favourites Zenit and CSKA might be worth opposing...
At times there seems almost a wilful perversity to the Russian league. Zenit were overwhelming favourites at the start of the season, having just added Hulk and Axel Witsel to a side that had won back-to-back championships. But the coming of big stars on big wages caused resentment and disrupted the spirit that had been founded around the club's St Petersburg core and they lie third, three points off the top.
The leaders, meanwhile, are CSKA. Three months ago, after they'd lost two of their first three league games, Leonid Slutsky looked to be on the way out. The former goalkeeper, whose career was ended when he fell out of tree trying to rescue a cat, always looks nervous but he had taken on a haunted appearance, as though unable to comprehend what was going wrong.
He urged patience - and he was right to do so. CSKA have won 11 of their last 12 in the league - and that despite losing Tomas Necid to a knee injury and last season's top-scorer Seydou Doumbia to back problems. With the Swedish duo of Pontus Wernbloom and Rasmus Elm providing the platform at the back of the midfield, CSKA have almost benefited from the absence of a main striker.
The shape is a nominal 4-2-3-1, with Zoran Tosic, Alan Dzagoev and Keisuke Honda operating, as they did last season, as the creative trident. What's different this year, though, is that at centre-forward CSKA have Ahmed Musa, the most promising Nigerian forward since Obafemi Martins and Julius Aghahowa and possibly even before that. He is quick and intelligent and dazzled at the Under-20 World Cup in Colombia last year. There, though, he tended to play on the left, cutting infield.
Musa is not, in any sense, a natural centre-forward, although he is CSKA's top-scorer so far this season with seven goals. That has turned out to be an advantage as his natural game is to drift left, which in turn opens up space for Honda to make angled runs. It's no coincidence that Honda is CSKA's second top-scorer this season with six.
Necid and Doumbia are both said to be close to a return. Slutsky insisted that "will make us stronger" but the danger is that they interrupt the flow. Doumbia is a mobile player - and his finishing ability is unquestioned - so it is likely he will make CSKA even more threatening. Necid, though, a target man, may find his role is restricted to coming off the bench in extremis.
CSKA are 2.829/5 for the title which, well as they've been playing, seems a little short. Slutksy's sides have historically been moody, capable of embarking on a run of miserable form for little apparent reason. Zenit, meanwhile, are 2.0811/10, but are surely worth laying at 2.47/5. Although five league wins in a row suggest that the ship has been steadied, the concern is the one win in the five before that.
Those five wins have come against Krasnodar, Kuban, Alania, Rostov and Volga Nizhny Novgorod - two sides in the bottom three and none higher than seventh; as a run to regain confidence it could hardly be bettered. Saturday's game away at Dinamo, themselves only 10th, will give a better indication of their revival before the big clash against CSKA the following week (Dinamo are a tempting 4.1n/a, with Zenit 1.9520/21 and available to lay at 2.0421/20).
So if not Zenit or CSKA, who are 1.331/3 to beat Amkar at home on Sunday, then who? Spartak (17.016/1 to be champions) and Terek (40.039/1) are eight points adrift and Rubin (9.89/1) a point further back, which realistically leaves only big-spending Anzhi who lie second, level with Zenit and three behind CSKA. Guus Hiddink's side have won eight of their last ten, although they could only draw at Slaven Bilic's Lokomotiv last time out, with the striker pairing of Samuel Eto'o and Lacine Traore producing 15 goals between them so far.
They're 1.330/100 to beat Rostov on Sunday, which probably isn't worth getting involved with, but given the slenderness of CSKA's squad and the rumbling dissatisfaction at Zenit the 4.03/1 available for Anzhi to win the title is tempting.