Moscow: Allowing CSKA Moscow to snatch the Russian Premier League title from under their noses last season has Zenit St Petersburg fired up for the new campaign which kicks off on Friday.
Holders CSKA, who strung together an astonishing 10 wins in a row to retain their crown, are seen as the team to beat with Zenit not far behind after the two sides have won the last four titles between them.
Zenit, now under coach Andre Villas-Boas who took charge in March, want the title back.
“Second place in the championship is a very bad result,” said the former Chelsea and Tottenham Hotspur manager.
“We have become stronger. We are ambitious and want to win the championship and become one of the top ten clubs in the Champions League. We know that this will be difficult, but everything is in our hands.”
Zenit’s European dreams, however, are under threat after the side from Russia`s second city suffered a 1-0 first leg defeat away to Cypriot side AEL Limassol in the third-qualifying round on Wednesday.
The defeat gave critics more ammunition to aim at Zenit’s players and coach even before the domestic season has started.
The club did strengthen over the summer, though, bringing in World Cup finalist Ezequiel Garay, who signed a five-year contract.
The Argentina defender, according to local press reports, is earning in the region of 5.0 million euros ($6.69 million) a year. He is one of the team’s highest paid players, only behind Brazilian Hulk and Belgium midfielder Axel Witsel.
“I do not think that talent is dying out in Russia,” Garay said. “If an established name is coming here everything depends on him, will he sink or swim. I came to Zenit because it is a great club. I hope we can win as many titles as possible.”
CSKA Moscow’s head coach Leonid Slutsky has managed to keep his championship-winning team together, while he also added the talented young Russian forward Kirill Panchenko, who joins the club from Tom Tomsk.
Panchenko is likely to give the Army team some variety in attack, while they can also rely for goals on last season’s top scorer Seydou Doumbia and Ahmed Musa, who scored twice against Argentina for Nigeria last month at the World Cup.
“We have the potential to reach great heights this season as long as all our players are fit,” said Slutsky. “It’s no secret that we do not have the deepest squad and I think most of our supporters know our strongest starting line-up in advance.”
Big spending Dynamo Moscow will also feel they are in with a chance of winning the title.
This summer the Blue and Whites signed four new players, including former Manchester United defender Alexander Buttner. They are still trying to sign French international Mathieu Valbuena from Olympique Marseille.
Two other clubs from Moscow, Spartak and Lokomotiv also have championship ambitions. The Railwaymen were last season’s surprise package, eventually finishing in third place and will be hoping to continue their progress.
After another disappointing season, Spartak have changed their head coach, bringing in 39-year-old Swiss Murat Yakin and Russia national team captain Roman Shirokov, who was a free agent after his contract with Zenit ran out.
Spartak were the dominant force in Russian football during the 1990s, but they have gone 11 years without a major trophy despite owner Leonid Fedun investing heavily in the Red and Whites.
The Moscow side will also play in a new stadium this season, the Otkrytie Arena which holds 42,000 spectators, built for 2018 World Cup finals.