Will Russia's switch to autumn-spring schedule bring Champions League success?
By Bradley King
When CSKA Moscow won the UEFA Cup in Lisbon in May 2005 to become Russia's first ever European trophy winners, there was a feeling it could be the breakthrough moment for the continental ambitions of the nation's top sides. Indeed, when Zenit St Petersburg lifted the same trophy three years later, there were similar hopes.
However, in the years since Zenitchiki's exploits, Russia's top teams have failed to make an impact in Europe's premier competition - the Champions League. CSKA's 2009/10 campaign remains the only time a Russian team has reached the last eight in that four-year period.
After a frenzied 18-month-long domestic calendar last season, Russia has now switched to an autumn to spring football schedule, as is traditional in Europe's other top leagues. Could this shake-up increase the chances of teams such as Zenit and Spartak Moscow competing in the latter stages of the Champions League or will Russia remain on the fringes of the big European players?
Prior to this campaign - of which four games have already been played, with Zenit leading the way - Russian football operated on a spring to autumn schedule. Of course, this made sense considering the environmental drawbacks of the world's biggest country - in January and February, temperatures in the capital, Moscow, commonly drop to around -10°C, making conditions difficult, at best.
It is important to note that even under the new system, Russia will accommodate a lengthy winter break. However, with Russian teams struggling to make a real impact on Europe, the decision was made to synchronise its football with that of the Premier League, La Liga and Serie A.
Speaking after the Russian Football Union (RFS) made the announcement regarding synchronising Russia's league with Europe's mainstream leagues in 2010, RFS president Sergei Fursenko declared: "The main aim of this transition is to guide Russian football to a higher level, through extending the dates of the competition, developing infrastructure and synchronising our competitions with European ones.
"This will not only give an enormous boost to the modernisation of football facilities, but will also help Russia's development in a wider sense."
In fact, a precedent for such a change can be found with Denmark. The Danes changed their league from a spring-autumn schedule to an autumn-spring schedule in 1995, citing their then-poor performance in Europe as a major factor. Since that decision, Danish teams have reached the group stage of the Champions League seven times, with FC Copenhagen reaching the last sixteen two years ago - a great achievement considering the relatively small population of the Scandinavian country.
But not everyone is convinced that change will be for the better. Ex-Tottenham Hotspur striker Roman Pavlyuchenko, now playing for Lokomotiv Moscow, said he felt that during the Russian winter in last year's mammoth campaign, pitches were more suitable for rugby than football. In a move which backs up that claim, Rubin Kazan and FC Volga had to play their home fixtures from a different location because their usual grounds were so unfit for purpose.
The weather aside, there is little doubt that the new season cycle will benefit the top Russian teams in the Champions League. Teams will be playing at their peak physical condition, rather than in the off-season. Last year's league winners Zenit will compete in the group stages this year with Spartak Moscow also having a chance of joining them, should they come through the play-offs against Fenerbache.
Another advantage of the change in system is that a better standard of footballer should be tempted to play their football in the east. This summer has seen Rasmus Elm, Kim Kallstrom and Gökhan Töre all head to the Russian Premier League and, while that list of recruitments might not exactly set the pulses racing, bigger names are likely to be attracted to Russia if the division thrives off its new schedule and the successes it could spark.
But critics maintain that the problems which plagued the likes of FC Volga last year will continue, meaning the less wealthy clubs receive a raw deal. With football now needing to be played in almost arctic conditions, these so-called 'lesser' clubs will have to fork out on equipment to deal with it, further loading the financial burden on teams focused solely on domestic matters and thus ending the chances of financial parity in the league.
Nevertheless, if Russia wants to become the host of a leading European league, change was inevitable. Currently ranked seventh in UEFA's association ranking, the country is a long way behind sixth-placed Portugal. Only success in the Champions League can push them up those rankings and help establish Russia as an elite footballing location.