What football match are you watching this weekend? I bet its the World Cup final isn't it?
Well The Cynical Challenge is delighted to reveal that, for the first time in weeks, you can warm up for the international football on offer with a healthy dose of the Russian Premier League.
After its summer hiatus Russia's top flight is back, with Thursday's game between Spartak Nalchik and Terek Grozny kicking off the second half of the country's football season, which runs between March and November. And while the battle (on second thoughts that's probably the wrong word) between the two sides from the North Caucasus may not whet the appetite, it's a pleasure to have the Russian Premier League back on the agenda.
Whether you're a regular Russia-watcher, or if you're just looking for some football to watch in the yawning chasm between the end of the World Cup and the start of the English Premier League, it's worth updating yourself on what's been going on during the summer break.
Dinamo on the move
First up is Dinamo Moscow, who have been making waves. The club revealed details last month of the redevelopment of Dinamo Stadium. It used to be my favourite stadium in Moscow - a roofless, concrete dustbowl full of Soviet-era charm, set in the grounds of a tree-lined park - but it was admittedly decrepit. With the help of $1.5 billion of investment from backers VTB Bank they are set to transform Dinamo Stadium into what has been described as a 45,000-seater "glass egg", to open in 2018.
They have also been among the most active in the transfer market this summer. They picked up Serbian defender Marko Lomic from Partizan Belgrade last week, but the real headline-grabber was the free transfer signing of Germany international striker Kevin Kuranyi from Schalke.
Many fear that Kuranyi will go the way of other big-name signings from outside Russia - Maxi Lopez, Maniche, Fernando Cavenaghi - who struggle to adapt to Russia's impenetrable language and cultural specificities. However, Kuranyi is different - a true citizen of the world. Though he doesn't speak Russian, the German has a bit of a pedigree for languages - born in Brazil to a Hungarian-German father and a Panamanian mother, he speaks German and Portuguese fluently, and can understand Hungarian, Spanish and English. In addition, Kuranyi's wife is Croatian and has been able to help the striker due to the similarities between Croat and Russian.
I tipped Dinamo at the start of the season for a shot at the Premier League title, which was starting to look a little embarrassing as they slumped 13 points behind leaders Zenit before the summer break, and parted with promising manager Andrey Kobelev. But with cash to burn in the transfer market, an able manager in Miodrag Bozovic and a top-class strike partnership in Kuranyi and former Liverpool player Andriy Voronin they look much better prepared for the second half of the season.
CSKA a selling club?
Over at CSKA, meanwhile, transfer rumours are rife. Having brought in Manchester United's Zoran Tosic at the start of the summer, the club looked to be building for the title run-in - they currently lie second in the table. But the performances of their players at the World Cup have started tongues wagging, and they may find it difficult to keep some of their big foreign signings.
Serb Milos Krasic has already made clear his intention to move to Juventus. He effectively bid farewell to CSKA fans in May, with the intention of moving on after the World Cup. Despite wrangling over the size of the transfer fee, Juventus are likely to get their man sooner rather than later.
Chile's Mark Gonzalez has also done much to enhance his reputation after a good World Cup in which he was Man of the Match against Switzerland. His stock had fallen after a disappointing spell at Liverpool, but his first months at CSKA have been impressive and he may well earn himself a move back to one of Europe's big leagues.
But top of everyone's shopping list is CSKA's Japanese playmaker/forward Keisuke Honda. Signed in January from Dutch club Venlo for €6m, Honda has been a revelation for fans and headline-writers alike, putting in some scintillating performances for both club and country. There are already suggestions that he may be a target for AC Milan, though his agent recently cast doubt on the link, suggesting the rossoneri don't have the cash. Still, Honda is a wanted man.
Match-fixing rears its head
Aside from transfer speculation, in recent days a rather less happy tale has been doing the rounds in recent days - one which may impact Russia's hopes of hosting the 2018 World Cup. On Tuesday FK Khimki, a Russian First Division Club from the northern suburbs of Moscow, approached the league administrator to report an approach to one of their players to throw their game against FK Volgar-Gazprom that evening. A football agent named Sergey Panov had allegedly leaned on a Khimki player to influence the outcome of the game - an allegation Panov denies.
The match went ahead and finished 1-1, with little evidence of match-fixing or interference. It was revealed after the game that Khimki goalkeeper Roman Berezovsky had himself asked teammate Aleksandr Tarkhanov to introduce him to Panov, who is Tarkhanov's representative. The pair met, and the match-fixing scandal subsequently ensued.
This is not the first time Roman Berezovsky has been embroiled in controversy. Last April the player received an anonymous phone call before a home match with FK Rostov, ordering him to throw the match or risk the consequences. The game ended 1-0 to Rostov, though there is no suggestion that Berezovsky underperformed (see the video of the winning goal yourself).
But these kind of rumours continue to dog Russian football, to the great detriment of the country's bid to host World Cup 2018. Indeed, speaking after the game, Tarkhanov also revealed that this wasn't the first time Khimki had been approached.
"Before a game in Saransk we were approached," he said. "There were whispers. The lads started warming up and began asking whether we would actually lose the game on purpose, and whether in exchange the opposition would allow us to win the return game.
"In Nizhny Novgorod it was the same situation. They say to us - we'll give you this game and then later you'll return the three points."
It should be emphasised that at this stage the allegations have yet to be proven. But at the risk of sounding like Lord Triesman, one wonders just how many of these types of arrangements are being struck across the Russian leagues.
Big money and allegations of match-fixing - just another season in Russian football eh?