MOSCOW, July 20 (RIA Novosti)
Russia's first autumn-spring football season kicks off Friday with Lokomotiv Moscow traveling to newly promoted Mordovia Saransk.
The 2012-13 campaign, designed to broadly fall in line with the European calendar after 20 seasons of playing March through November to avoid the harsh winter, sees Zenit St. Petersburg the favorites to take a third-straight title.
Luciano Spalletti's side, who became champions with three games to spare last term, expect to get off to a flyer Sunday against league minnows Amkar Perm.
The Italian retains the classy squad that blazed to the title with a 13-point cushion over second-placed Spartak Moscow, with the exception of Arsenal loan signing Andrei Arshavin, who returns to London after assisting the team in the run-in.
Two additions in 21-year-old Georgian midfielder Levan Kenia and Montenegro striker Luka Djordjevic, 17, aren't expected to make waves just yet.
Spalletti may be more focused on motivating the seven Zenit players who suffered the bitter disappointment of a group stage exit from Euro 2012 with Russia last month.
Last season's runners up, Spartak Moscow, begin their quest for a 10th league title on Saturday at Alania Vladikavkaz, who were promoted from the second tier as runners up.
Ex-Valencia coach Unai Emery has been drafted in by his old Real Sociedad teammate Valery Karpin, who was coach last season but moved upstairs to become a director this term.
Emery will hope for fireworks from 6ft 4in striker Artem Dzyuba after the Russia striker's breakthrough season last campaign, and has bolstered his squad with 21-year-old Brazilian midfielder Romulo.
But at the back, the team has been hit by the news that captain Sergei Parshivlyuk has torn the same cruciate ligament that he ruptured in 2010 during a freak training accident, ruling him out for months.
CSKA Moscow's hunt for a first title in seven years begins at home Saturday to FC Rostov, who narrowly avoided relegation last season.
Leonid Slutsky's team don't have the distraction of Champions League football this year after finishing third, and have clung onto their stars.
Last season's top scorer striker Seydou Doumbia and rising midfield star Alan Dzagoev, both linked with moves to the English Premier League, remain, at least for now.
Slutsky hopes injury won't ruin the coming season for Japanese midfielder Keisuke Honda and Chilean winger Mark Gonzalez, who both appeared to have recuperated after months out injured.
Striker Tomas Necid, however, is out until April after suffering cruciate ligament damage in training.
The billionaire-backed Dagestan side Anzhi Makhachkala, meanwhile, will consider the season a failure if they fail to finish in the top two.
Owner Suleiman Kerimov has set Champions League qualification as a minimum target for this season for Guus Hiddink's side, who open against Dan Petrescu's Kuban on Saturday.
That may pit Anzhi's new Ivorian striker Lacina Traore against the club he was signed from this summer, forming a potentially lethal strike partnership with Samuel Eto'o.
Of the other likely challengers it is Lokomotiv who are in need of the greatest turn in fortunes, after finishing seventh last year.
President Olga Smorodskaya dispensed with Portuguese coach Jose Couceiro after the team went winless in the last 12 games, bringing in Croatia coach Slaven Bilic.
Bilic has bolstered his side immediately with the signing of Dynamo Moscow winger Alexander Samedov and defender Vedran Corluka from Tottenham Hotspur.
That gives the side a more solid spine, with Russia's Denis Glushakov commanding the midfield and striker Roman Pavlyuchenko leading the line up front.
Elsewhere, Dynamo Moscow have strengthened their defense with the signing of Eintracht Frankfurt's Croatian center-back Gordon Schildenfeld.
Coach Sergei Silkin, whose job was in the balance after finishing fourth last season, freshens up his attack with Dutch midfielder Otman Bakkal.
Dynamo start against minnows FC Volga on Saturday looking to put the infighting that blighted the tail-end of last season firmly behind them.
Ukraine forward Andriy Voronin is transfer-listed, though the club is yet to receive any offers for the 32 year old.
In other matches, Krylya Sovetov Samara host Terek Grozny and two-time champions Rubin Kazan, who brought in defender Ivan Marcano from Villarreal, travel to Krasnodar.
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