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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Russian Soccer Season Opens As Spartak Faces Tough Test

Although two Russian clubs -- as well as the Russian national team -- have already played several international matches this year, the nation's soccer season officially opens this weekend.

The premier league kicks off its seventh season Saturday with all 16 teams competing in seven cities across the country.

Defending champion Spartak Moscow, which has captured the league title in five of the past six years, faces much-improved Zenit in St. Petersburg on Saturday in what should be the weekend's marquee matchup.

Last season's runner-up, Rotor Volgograd, travels to Rostov to take on Rostselmash, while another title contender, Alania Vladikavkaz, opens at home against Kalmykian newcomer Uralan.

Aside from the long-standing rivalry between Spartak and Zenit, the matchup has an interesting subplot. Last month, former Zenit and Spartak player Sergei Dmitriyev accused several of his former St. Petersburg teammates of throwing the 1996 premier league finale against Spartak.

In the match, St. Petersburg goalkeeper Roman Berezovsky allegedly allowed two soft goals, enabling the Muscovites to win the game 2-1 and force a playoff against Alania for the league crown. Former Zenit and national team coach Pavel Sadyrin, who has an ongoing feud with Spartak boss Oleg Romantsev, added fire to the controversy by saying Berezovsky threw the game.

The matter is still under investigation by the league's disciplinary committee.

In light of the controversy, most of the 20,000 tickets for Saturday's clash at Petrovsky Stadium in St. Petersburg were sold in a matter of a hours this week.

Meanwhile, two of Moscow's five teams, Dynamo and Lokomotiv, open at home against Baltika Kaliningrad and Tyumen, respectively. In the past two weeks, Lokomotiv registered victories in the European Cup Winners Cup and in the Russian Cup, while Dynamo will try to improve on last season's third place.