After a long winter lay-off the Russian Premier League is back with a bang this weekend as leaders CSKA Moscow welcome city rivals Spartak for the nation’s most hotly disputed derby.
CSKA top the table with 37 points from 18 matches, three ahead of second-placed Rostov, while another Moscow outfit, Lokomotiv sit, third two points further back.
The leaders have already shaken off some of their rustiness from the three-month break by beating Ufa 2-0 in the Russian Cup quarter-final earlier this week.
“It’s very inspiring to restart the season in a winning way,” CSKA manager Leonid Slutsky said.
After a seven-match winless streak at the end of last year, which allowed Rostov to narrow the gap, Slutsky wants to hit the ground running now.
“The derby with Spartak may influence the rest of the season so we have to take advantage of this opportunity,” he said.
Spartak coach Dmitry Alenichev said he and his men were targeting European football for next season, but expected the match against an old enemy to be on a knife-edge on Sunday.
“This match is extremely important for both teams,” Alenichev said. “Slutsky and I know each other pretty well. Neither of us will be able to deceive the other. This derby is a clash of characters first of all.”
Spartak have 78 wins to their name in the derby, which dates back to 1922, while CSKA have chalked up 66 victories, with 36 of their meetings ending in draws.
CSKA won 2-1 when the sides last met in August.
Reigning champions Zenit St Petersburg have slipped to sixth, seven points behind CSKA, and will have one eye on Wednesday’s Champions league last-16 return leg where they need to overturn a 1-0 deficit at home to Benfica.
FC Krasnodar will present them with a warm-up on Saturday.
Zenit also advanced into the Russian Cup semi-finals in midweek with a 1-0 extra-time win over another club from Krasnodar, Kuban.
Zenit coach Andre Villas-Boas said he was pleased with his team’s performance against Kuban, where the attack looked much more impressive than in the match at Benfica.
“We were really poor in attack in Lisbon but our defending was good there until we gave up that last-minute goal,” he said.
“Against Kuban our attacking game was excellent but we failed to score in regular time.