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CSKA ready for battle to retain Russian title
Russia's Premier League kicks off for a new season on Sunday, with reigning champions CSKA Moscow facing a tough challenge from Zenit St Petersburg and big spenders Anzhi Makhachkala.
Helped by the brilliance of Brazilian marksman Vagner Love, CSKA walked away with the 2012-13 title to the fury of the hugely ambitious Zenit who had dominated the previous season.
But the new season could be the moment for Dagestan outfit Anzhi Makhachkala who, helped by the millions of tycoon owner Suleiman Kerimov and the tactical nous of Dutch manager Guus Hiddink, have risen to be one the the main contenders for the title.
Russia's football bosses will be hoping for a season of quality and also an absence of the hooliganism scandals that last season cast an ugly shadow over Russia ahead of its hosting of the 2018 World Cup.
While the league kicks off on Sunday, CSKA Moscow start the defence of their title against newly-promoted Ural Yekaterinburg on Wednesday.
CSKA will be much fancied this year as they have not only kept their title-winning squad but also boosted their line-up by signing Bulgarian international midfielder Georgi Milanov and former Swiss under-21 midfielder Steven Zuber.
"Everybody knows that the task to defend the title is even more difficult than to win it," CSKA coach Leonid Slutsky told reporters.
"So we are preparing for a very tough battle in the upcoming championship. I expect a very interesting season."
CSKA warm up for their opening match in the Russian Super Cup with last season's runners-up Zenit at Rostov on Saturday.
In the Super Cup, Zenit will be without their star Brazilian forward Hulk, who has asked club bosses for a short extension of his vacation due to his participation in the Confederations Cup.
Nevertheless Zenit, who also strengthened their squad by bringing back Ukrainian international midfielder Anatoly Tymoshchuk after four years with Bayern Munich, are hoping to get off to a winning start.
"Zenit are strong enough to win the season's first trophy on Saturday," Belgian midfielder Axel Witsel was quoted as saying by Sport Express daily.
"We worked really hard ahead of the season. It's very important for us to take the winning start to enter the new season in a brave mood."
Zenit begin their domestic campaign with a match away to FC Krasnodar, also on Wednesday.
Anzhi Makhachkala, who clinched their first ever place at the podium last season by finishing third, start with a home match with Lokomotiv Moscow on Sunday.
Anzhi, who have strengthened their line-up by bringing back Congolese full back Christopher Samba from Queens Park Rangers, are considered title contenders.
The club from the capital of Russian republic of Dagestan have spent around 240 million euros at the transfer market since they were purchased by oil and metals tycoon Kerimov in January 2011.
They also signed Russia captain Igor Denisov from Zenit and international forward Alexander Kokorin from Dynamo Moscow.
The club's title chances were also boosted when Hiddink decided to extend his contract for another season and former Manchester United assistant coach Rene Meulensteen joined his backroom staff.
"I believe in the upcoming season we are capable of performing even better than we did in the last one," Samba told Anzhi's official website.
"Anzhi's current line-up is stronger than the club had last season. Besides, we are coached by one of the world's best managers. We have serious chances to win something serious this season"
Dynamo Moscow v Volga Nizhny Novgorod, Anzhi Makhachkala v Lokomotiv Moscow, Kuban Krasnodar v Rubin Kazan
Rostov v Terek Grozny
Amkar Perm v Tomsk, Samara v Spartak Moscow
Ural Yekaterinburg v CSKA Moscow, FC Krasnodar v Zenit St Petersburg
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