Teams: Udinese,Lokomotiv Moscow,Russia NT
Russian Premier League
CSKA ready for Russian glory
PFC CSKA Moskva can become Russian champions for the first time this Saturday if they beat SC Rotor Volgograd.
A home win would secure Valeri Gazzaev's side the Premier League title with a week to spare, their first such success since their triumph in the final Soviet championship of 1991. Ironically, though, Gazzaev has not been free of criticism this season: his side lost in the UEFA Champions League second qualifying round against F.Y.R. Macedonia's FK Vardar and their football has been described as "primitive" in some quarters. Moreover, the coach saw his reign as Russian team chief end after stuttering UEFA EURO 2004™ form and a friendly defeat by Israel.
Comparing CSKA to FC Spartak Moskva, the team that has dominated Russian football in the post-Soviet era, Rotor midfield player Valeri Esipov said: "It was a pleasure to challenge Spartak Moskva, when they sat on the top of Russian football, because they played the game, and allowed you to do the same. CSKA will not play themselves and will not let us do it."
Still, it is neither Spartak nor Rotor who remain CSKA's only rivals, but FC Zenit St. Peterburg. They face deposed champions FC Lokomotiv Moskva on Saturday needing a win and a CSKA stumble to reduce the current four-point gap. Whatever happens, they have still performed above expectations by threatening to match the achievements of the FC Zenit Leningrad team who were Soviet champions in 1984.
Lokomotiv, meanwhile, never fully recovered from a poor start in their first ever title defence, which coincided with the tail end of their Champions League second group stage appearance. But a late surge, helped perhaps by their 2003/04 Champions League campaign that has seen them hold Arsenal FC and then beat Internazionale FC this week, has taken them into third place, a position that would secure them the final UEFA Cup slot along with Russian Cup winners Spartak and the league runners-up.
However, three sides are chasing that European berth. FC Rubin Kazan are closest, a point behind Lokomotiv, and Kurban Berdyev's team have surprised many with solid performances since their 2002 promotion. They meet FC Torpedo-Metallurg Moskva, who have hit form this month to climb out of the relegation zone for the first time this season.
Contenders fall behind
Two points behind Rubin are FC Saturn Ramenskoye and FC Dinamo Moskva, who were tipped for success this season, but inconsistency has cost them dear. FC Shinnik Yaroslavl are a further point behind, but to qualify for the UEFA Cup must beat both FC Rostov-na-Donu and FC Chernomorets Krasnodarskiy Kray, and hope other results go their way.
Chernomorets, who reappointed Igor Gamula as coach this week after the resignation of Sergei Pavlov, will see their one-year stay in the top flight end if they fail to beat FC Uralan Elista, who are four points ahead in the second relegation place.
Torpedo-Metallurg and FC Spartak-Alania Vladikavkaz are the sides hovering immediately above the relegation zone. Rotor, meanwhile, are four points clear, so will be safe with three points against CSKA - although, after defeat in last season's championship play-off against Lokomotiv, the leaders will not be in generous mood with the title so close again.