Russia has, to certain extents, seen a cultural change in the past week. From the news that Prime Minister Vladimir Putin was greeted with an unfamiliar chorus of catcalls when stepping into the ring of a Judo tournament to the fact that the Russian Premier League has altered its structure, heading into the last third of the season - change is apparent.
The Premier League's format has now split into two differing groups of eight teams, essentially one group of the top eight teams after thirty games and another group of the bottom eight teams after the thirty game milestone that was reached before the most recent international break. The reason for this radical alteration of the end of season format is to break away from the traditional Russian schedule of a March-November season to comply with the system common in Western Europe of an August-May calendar. This will enable Russia to host the 2018 World Cup of spiralling predicted costs with the knowledge that their domestic game, just like almost everybody else's, will have packed up for the summer.
In a recent interview with the Slavic Football Union, British author and journalist Marc Bennetts spoke about the possible impacts of the schedule change, pointing to the fact that "for local fans, the change isn't actually that great. After all, they still won't be playing right through the winter, and the season already finished in November anyway. Which is kind of chilly, usually." But, agreeing with certain schools of Russian thought, the author of Football Dynamo hinted "it [the schedule change] might prove a boost for European tournaments, as the side should be in better form by the time the later stages come along." This notion has been put forward by various media sources in Russia as something favouring the likes of Zenit and CSKA in the Champions League and ultimately working to improve the UEFA coefficient of the Russian nation. Although, and more significant for the league at this moment, the two divergent groups of teams this season may provide more entertainment and a higher quality of competition.
This weekend's round of fixtures, as the inaugural round of the differing group stage, offered fans twenty goals across eight fixtures, throwing up a number of points for debate throughout the vast country. As Zenit and Anzhi played out an exciting 0-0 draw and Emannuel Emenike inspired Spartak overcome Moscow rivals Lokomotiv, Leonid Slutskiy saw his CSKA side defeated 2-1 to Rubin Kazan. All this, and ignoring the fact that the other game in the higher group saw Dinamo cement the best home record in the league with victory over Kuban, resulted in Zenit crawling to three points ahead of CSKA at the top of the table. Slutskiy now faces growing pressure from the CSKA fans to improve the club's ailing form, worryingly enough, though, the defeat to Rubin was the first time this season in which Seydou Doumbia scored and CSKA also lost, illustrating the outstanding efforts of the striker may not be enough to carry the side.
Elsewhere, and some might say less glamorously, Amkar inflicted Volga NN's nineteenth defeat of the championship; Terek and Krylya drew for the first time in five seasons, Rostov ensured the hopeless and increasingly doomed Tom lost for the nine game in succession and in what was perhaps the game of the weekend, FC Krasnodar outfought Spartak Nalchik to triumph 3-2. The five-goal enthraller in Krasnodar featured on outstanding volley from Yevgeni Shipitin, meaning that arguably the goal of the weekend featured in arguably the match of the weekend.
Judging from the events of the round just passed it is apparent that the change in format of the Russian Premier League this season may provide an exciting climax to what has most definitely been a marathon and not a sprint. In the upper chamber of football fans and neutrals alike can be enticed by the fact that the more successful and by proxy bigger clubs will face each other regularly in the closing stages of this season and the smaller teams in the lower group the lesser teams have the chance to build momentum ahead of the new season by avoiding matches against the likes of Zenit and CSKA. Alas, though, any trends and phenomena derived from this group format will only last for one season, as the extended campaign gears up for a Western calendar in the 2012-2013 schedule.