The 2017 KPL season is upon us, and here a closer look at each teams' chances of making impact ahead of Wednedsay's kick-off.
However, expect a bit more unpredictability this term as the reigning champions look somewhat weaker amid pre-season concerns and from this point of view, a 22-point gulf between top duo and the remainder of the league seems unlikely.
With that, Kairat Almaty are in a good provisional position to clinch their long-awaited league title. It would be logical fruits of the long-time strategy settled by the club owner Kairat Boranbayev who wants Kairat evolve into nation's dominant force.
But the league is full of another ambitions and potential X-factors. So the confidence grows that the race for European football as well as the relegation dogfight will both be an intriguing and thrilling affair throughout.
As split format had been cancelled, a brand new three-round system could add more motivation and dynamism into the competition that often saw its intensity dropped in post-split period.
1. Kairat Almaty
Last season: runners-up
Head coach: Kakhaber Tskhadadze (GEO)
Arrivals: D Yeldos Akhmetov (Irtysh Pavlodar), M Maxim Gladchenko (Baiterek Astana), M Georgy Zhukov (Ural Yekaterinburg), M Ivo Iličević (CRO, Anzhi Makhachkala), M Samat Sarsenov (FC Orenburg), M Ákos Elek (HUN, Diósgyőri VTK)
Exits: G Andrey Sidelnikov, M Nurlan Dairov, M Aslan Darabayev, M Anatoliy Tymoshchuk (UKR, retired), F Léandre Tawamba (CMR)
Outlook: With their impressive core of talent and structural solidity intact, Kairat have got every needed piece to put together to taste success at the end of the race. Having Andrey Arshavin, Gerard Gohou and Bauyrzhan Islamkhan on their day, Kairat, for sure, are most fearsome attacking team of the league. That itself is enough to consider them big contenders and with addition of mental and defensive power, something they lacked last season, Kakhaber Tskhadadze's men are destined to get that elusive league title for the first time in 13 years.
Early prediction: champions
Last season: champions
Head coach: Stanimir Stoilov (BUL)
Arrivals: D Yevgeny Postnikov (FK Ventspils), M Didar Zhalmukan (FC Aktobe), M Ivan Mayewski (BLR, Anzhi Makhachkala), F Azdren Llullaku (ALB, CS Gaz Metan), F Roman Murtazayev (Irtysh Pavlodar)
Exits: G Abylaikhan Duisen, D Amandos Aliyev, D Birzhan Kulbekov, D Serhiy Malyi, D Konstantin Engel, M Agim Ibrahimi (MKD), M Roger Cañas (COL), M Azat Nurgaliyev, M Askhat Tagybergen, M Berik Shaikhov, F Djordje Despotović (SRB), F Tanat Nuserbayev, F Alexey Schyotkin
Outlook: This is not Astana of old as the club, while looking for financial stability, have loaned out a big group of players, with the likes of Roger Cañas, Djordje Despotović and Askhat Tagybergen being significant losses. To fill the void, the champions brought in some quality performers but apparently should do more if they want to extend their reign (and they do have time as the transfer window stays open until April 3). At the moment, it seems like Stanimir Stoilov, the most successful coach in the KPL's recent history, faces a difficult campaign. Nevertheless, Astana still are a formidable powerhouse with fantastic match-winning capabilities.
Early prediction: runners-up
3. Ordabasy Shymkent
Last season: 4th
Head coach: Alexey Petrushin (RUS), replaced Bakhtiyar Baiseitov
Arrivals: G Ramil Nurmukhametov (FC Atyrau), D Zoran Rendulić (SRB, FK Crvena Zvezda), M Kyrylo Kovalchuk (UKR), M Azat Nurgaliyev (FC Astana), M Preslav Yordanov (BUL), F Tanat Nuserbayev (FC Astana)
Exits: D Branislav Trajković (SRB), M Dominic Chatto (NGA/FIN), F Filip Kasalica (MNE)
Outlook: The mastermind of 2004 Kairat's golden success Alexey Petrushin took over the reins of the Southerners, while their old leaders Azat Nurgaliyev and Tanat Nuserbayev returned home after Astana spell to add class and stamina to the squad that includes Kazakh football legend Samat Smakov. The sizeable amount of talent and experience is there and the question is how quickly can those jell? No doubt, Ordabasy will be able to end their fourth-place limbo should Petrushin find a right formula.
Early prediction: podium race
4. FC Aktobe
Last season: 6th
Head coach: Ihor Rakhayev (UKR), replaced Yuri Utkulbayev (RUS)
Arrivals: G Andrey Sidelnikov (Kairat Almaty), D Berik Aitbayev (FC Atyrau), D Rafkat Aslan (Tobol Kostanay), D Oleksandr Volovyk (UKR, OH Leuven), D Papa Gueye (SEN, FC Rostov), D Damir Dautov (Irtysh Pavlodar), D Juninho (BRA, Goias EC), D Rakhimzhan Rozybakiyev (Akzhayik Oral), M Bauyrzhan Baitana (FC Taraz), M Vítor Júnior (Al-Qadisiyah FC), Juan Manuel 'Chaco' Torres (ARG, CA Chaco For Ever), M Anton Shurygin (Akzhayik Oral), F Ihar Zyankovich (BLR, FC Taraz), F Cassiano (BRA, Goiás EC), Yuri Mamute (BRA, Gremio FBPA)
Exits: G Stanislav Pavlov, D Yegor Azovsky, D Yegor Sorokin (RUS), M Nikita Bocharov (RUS), M Bobir Davlatov (UKR), M Didar Zhalmukan, M Viktor Kryukov, M Sandro Tsveiba (RUS), M Vuk Mitošević (SRB), D Marat Sitdikov (RUS), F Abat Aimbetov, F Sergey Lisenkov, F Nemanja Nikolić (SRB)
Outlook: The five-time Kazakhstan champions will be desperate to brush off woeful memories of 2016 when they finished sixth, their worst result in 21st century. Under new manager Ihor Rakhayev and with arrivals of an exciting group of foreign players, Aktobe look strong enough to compete for medals though the Red and Whites have to fix defensive fragility that haunted them last season.
Early prediction: podium race/European berth challenge
5. Irtysh PavlodarLast season: 3th
Head coach: Dimitar Dimitrov (BUL)
Arrivals: G Nikita Kalmykov (Kyzyl-Zhar SK), D Ilya Vorotnikov (FC Taraz), D Lasha Dvali (GEO, Śląsk Wrocław), D Stefan Živković (SRB, FK Čukarički), D Ilya Kalinin (Zhetysu Taldykorgan), D Alexandr Kislitsyn (Okzhetpes Kokshetau), D Yevhen Tkachuk (UKR, Zorya Luhansk), M Rodrigo António (BRA, Bnei Sakhnin FC), M Aslan Darabayev (Kairat Almaty), M Nurbol Zhumaskaliyev (Tobol Kostanay), F Franck Dja Djédjé (CIV, Hibernian FC), F Serge Nganbe (CMR, Okzhetpes Kokshetau), F Ismaël Fofana (CIV, FK Čukarički)
Exits: G Anton Tsirin, D Yeldos Akhmetov, D Alibek Ayaganov, D Damir Dautov, D Semir Kerla (BIH), D Grigory Sartakov, D Georgas Freidgeimas (LTU), M Shota Grigalashvili (GEO), M Tomaš Jirsák (CZE), F Ousman Jallow (GAM), F Vitaly Li, F Roman Murtazayev, F Djiby Fall (SEN), F Ignacio Herrera (CHI)
Outlook: Typically for the bulk of the league, the2016 bronze medalists are a team in transition right now as Roman Murtazayev, Semir Kerla, Tomáš Jirsák and theother instrumental parts of Irtysh's latest breakthrough have gone. That might damage the side but aside of such promising newcomers as Franck Dja Djédjé and Lasha Dvali, they still have pivotal playmaker Carlos Fonseca on the pitch and skilful tactician Dimitar Dimitrov in the dugout. So there is a room for optimism in Pavlodar.
Early prediction: European berth challenge
6. Tobol Kostanay
Last season: 7th
Head coach: Omari Tetradze (RUS)
Arrivals: G Dmytro Nepohodov (UKR, Vorskla Poltava), D Yevgeny Lyovin (Akzhayik Oral), D Serhiy Malyi (FC Astana), D Grigory Sartakov (Irtysh Pavlodar), M Samat Zharynbetov (FC Ekibastuz), M Timur Zhakupov (Shakhter Bulat), M Ramiz Mukanov, M Askhat Tagybergen (FC Astana), F Djordje Despotović (SRB, FC Astana), F Toktar Zhangylyshbay (Zhetysu Taldykorgan), F Zhasulan Moldakarayev (FC Altay), F Alexey Schyotkin (FC Astana)
Exits: G Vladimir Loginovsky, G Alexandr Petukhov, D Anuar Agaisin, D Rafkat Aslan, D Nurtas Kurgulin, D Serhiy Yavorskyi (UKR), M Timur Dosmagambetov, M Ciprian Deac (ROU), M Nurbol Zhumaskaliyev, M Danil Tsoy, F Shamil Asildarov (RUS), F Sergey Khizhnichenko
Outlook: Nurbol Zhumaskaliyev, Alexandr Petukhov and Sergey Khizhnichenko left the club but with some nice reinforcements and shrewd Omari Tetradze – who seems to have opted for a certain strategy in his first full season in Kostanay – at the helm, Tobol are able to offer something different. Recently, they have performed below their brilliant standards of 2000s but perhaps this reloaded side is going to make a step or two back to their vintage version.
Early prediction: European berth challenge
7. Okzhetpes Kokshetau
Last season: 5th
Head coach: Vladimir Mukhanov (RUS)
Arrivals: G Mikhail Golubnichy (Kyzyl-Zhar SK), D Alexandr Marochkin (Kaisar Kyzylorda), M Alibek Ayaganov (Irtysh Pavlodar), M Nurlan Dairov (Kairat Almaty), M Timur Dosmagambetov (Tobol Kostanay), M Oleg Nedashkovsky (FC Taraz), M Serhiy Politylo (UKR, FC Dnipro), M Demiat Slambekov (Baiterek Astana), M Maxim Fedin (FC Atyrau), M Danil Tsoy (Tobol Kostanay), M Lucas Mario Horvat (SVN, NK Domžale), F Abat Aimbetov (FC Aktobe), F Tsvetan Genkov (BUL, Lokomotiv Gorna Oryahovitsa), F Alexandr Kozlov (RUS, Fakel Voronezh), F Yerkebulan Nurgaliyev (FC Altay)
Exits: G Jurakhon Babakhanov, D Miras Tuliyev, D Anton Chichulin, D Olexandr Chyzhov (UKR), M Sanat Zhumakhanov, M Zhakyp Kozhamberdy, M Ilnur Mangutkin, M Serge Nganbe (CMR), M Risto Ristović (SRB), F Nicolás Canales (CHI), F Zhasulan Moldakarayev
Outlook: In 2015 and 2016, Akmola Region side have emerged as biggest surprising pack of KPL and high-profile manager Vladimir Mukhanov will be looking for further implementation of his superb coaching vision. Even with plenty of departures of old heroes, Okzhetpes have a no-nonsense squad, with Saša Stamenković and Joseph Nane being the spine of the team. That means they could retain their last position or at least enjoy attractive, tactically plausible performances again, sitting comfortable in the standings.
Early prediction: European berth challenge/mid-table finish
8. Shakhter Karagandy
Last season: 9th
Head coach: Alexey Yeryomenko (RUS/FIN)
Arrivals: D Ilnur Mangutkin (Okchetpes Koskhetau), D Korede Aiyegbusi (ENG, AFC Eskilstuna), D Didier Kadio (Kerala Blasters), M Milan Stojanović (SRB, FK Metalac), M Aidos Oral, M Marko Stanojević (SRB, FK Rad), F Alessio Allegria (BEL, RFC Seraing), F Daurenbek Tazhimbetov (FC Taraz)
Exits: D Robert Arzumanyan (ARM), D Yevgeny Goryachy, D Grigory Dubkov, M Maksat Baizhanov, M Aibar Nurybekov, M Desley Ubbink (NED), F Sergey Vetrov, F Filip Serečin (SVK), F Marko Simonovski (MKD), F Andrey Finonchenko (retired)
Outlook: Shakhter have been sluggish last year and only secured safety deep into the second stage of campaign after emergency manager Alexey Yeryomenko stepped in to steady the shaky ship. The father of well-known Russian-Finnish brothers set to continue with a revamped team (where new signings Alessio Allegria and Korede Aiyegbusi likely to draw a lot of attention) and there is a sense that they would beat the drop without going through turbulence. A potential dark horse, Shakhter should generate additional competitiveness in what will be a tough contest in the middle echelon.
Early prediction: mid-table finish
9. Kaisar Kyzylorda
Last season: First League champions
Head coach: Stoycho Mladenov (BUL), replaced Sultan Abildayev
Arrivals: G Anton Tsirin (Irtysh Pavlodar), D Ilyas Amirseitov (Zhetysu Taldykorgan), D Aldan Baltayev (FC Atyrau), D Yevgeny Goryachy (Shakhter Karagandy), D Dmitry Yevsigneyev (FC Taraz), D Abdel Lamanje (FRA, FC Atyrau), D Alexey Muldarov (FC Atyrau), D Valentin Chureyev (FC Atyrau), M Volodymyr Arzhanov (UKR, FC Atyrau), M Maksat Baizhanov (Shakhter Karagandy), M Valery Korobkin (FC Atyrau), M Zhambyl Kukeyev, M Saidi Ntibazonkiza (BDI, SM Caen), F John Kamara (SLE, Riga FC), F Mathias Coureur (MTQ, Lokomotiv Gorna Oryahovitsa), F Stefan Nikolić (MNE, Radnik Surdulica)
Exits: D Sergey Keiler, D Adilet Kenesbek, D Olzhas Kerimzhanov, D Nurzharyk Kunov, D Alexandr Marochkin, D Anton Moltusinov, M Vladimir Vyatkin, M Olzhas Ilyasov, M Kuanysh Kalmuratov, M Matic Maruško (SVN), M Arman Nusip, F Oleg Hromțov (MDA)
Outlook: Kaisar will be enthusiastic about their first season after promotion and their newly appointed boss Stoycho Mladenov had already proven his worth as Atyrau manager. A number of Atyrau players have joined Kyzylorda side alongside with the Bulgarian as the Wolves did well during their transfer campaign (former Kazakhstan internationals Valery Korobkin and Zhambyl Kukeyev arrived among others), upgrading their level to be fit to compete in the top tier.
Early prediction: mid-table finish
10. Akzhayik OralLast season: 10th
Head coach: Vakhid Masudov
Arrivals: Vyacheslav Kotlyar (FC Altay), D Dmitry Schmidt (FC Altay), M Jhoan Manuel Arenas (COL, Estudiantes Merida), M Azat Yersalimov (FC Altay), M Konstantin Zarechny (FC Altay), M Jovan Nikolić (MNE, FK Sutjeska), F Izu Azuka (NGA, Yeni Malatyaspor), F Georgy Makayev (Kyzyl-Zhar SK), F Yuri Pertsukh (Kyzyl-Zhar SK), F Samit Chulagov (Baiterek Astana)
Exits: G Roman Bagautdinov, G Nurbolat Kalmenov, G Srdjan Ostojić (SRB), D Eldar Abdrakhmanov, D Saša Kolunija (SRB), D Zakhar Korobov, D Yevgeny Lyovin, D Danilo Nikolić (SRB), D Rakhimzhan Rozybakiyev, D Ruslan Khairov, M Nikolay Zabrodin, M Kairat Nurdauletov (retired), M Izym Sarsekenov, M Abylaikhan Totay, M Magomed Uzdenov, M Marat Shakhmetov, M Sergey Shevtsov, M Anton Shurygin, F Kuanysh Begalin, F Miroslav Lečić (SRB), F Alexey Maltsev
Outlook: While clinching their top status following promotion was quite a feat for such an inconsistent league side, the possible second season's struggles coupled with adaptation issues for numerous newcomers could impact Akzhayik negatively. Despite Vakhid Masudov, the club's saviour in 2016, possesses all it takes to escape slump, you can imagine Akzhayik huffing and puffing throughout another topsy-turvy campaign.
Early prediction: mid-table finish/relegation battle
11. FC Atyrau
Last season: 8th
Head coach: Zoran Vulić (CRO), replaced Stoycho Mladenov (BUL)
Arrivals: G Andrey Pasechenko (Zhetysu Taldykorgan), D Eldar Abdrakhmanov (Akzhayik Oral), D Zakhar Korobov (Akzhayik Oral), D Ucha Lobjanidze (GEO, Dinamo Tbilisi), D Miras Tuliyev (Okzhetpes Kokshetau), D Anton Chichulin (Okzhetpes Kokshetau), M Jovan Djokić (SRB, Javor Ivanjica), M Novica Maksimović (SRB, FK Vojvodina), M Aibar Nurybekov (Shakhter Karagandy), M Jure Obšivac (CRO, NK Split), M Shavkat Salomov (UZB, Buxoro FK), M Alisher Suley (FC Taraz), M Marat Khairullin (Okzhetpes Kokshetau), F Bekzhan Abdrakhman (SDYuSShOR 7 Astana), F Almas Armenov (FC Caspy), F Vladimir Dvalishvili (GEO, Dinamo Tbilisi), F Vitaly Li (Kairat Almaty), F Ivan Rodić (CRO, Metalist Kharkiv)
Exits: G Ramil Nurmukhametov, D Berik Aitbayev, D Aldan Baltayev, D Aleksandar Damčevski (MKD), D Abdel Lamanje (FRA), D Alexey Muldarov, D Valentin Chureyev, M Volodymyr Arzhanov (UKR), M Valery Korobkin, M Alexandru Curtean (ROU), M Maxim Fedin, M Vyacheslav Sharpar (UKR), M Guy Stéphane Essame (CMR), F Alyaksandr Makas (BLR), F Przemysław Trytko (POL)
Outlook: Several days earlier, Atyrau have been deducted nine points by FFK for debts to the club's former players, a shock that could spell doom on the Oilers' entire season which they enter with new man in charge. Zoran Vulić is a rookie in Kazakhstan football, so it is hard to say when and if he can inject spark and chemistry into the squad refreshed via some interesting signings, including Marat Khairullin and Alisher Suley. Given all this, it seems that Atyrau will be on the verge of taking a step back after their solid mid-table finishes in recent years.
Early prediction: relegation battle
Last season: 11th, relegation via playoff before reinstatement
Head coach: Vait Talgayev, replaced Yuriy Maksymov (UKR)
Arrivals: G Jurakhon Babakhanov (Okzhetpes Kokshetau), G Vladimir Loginovsky (Tobol Kostanay), G Arslan Satubaldin, D Mohammed Diarra (GUI, FC Altay), D Nurtas Kurgulin (Tobol Kostanay), D Nemanja Mijušković (MNE, FC Vardar), D Anton Moltusinov (Kaisar Kyzylorda), M Maxim Azovsky (Zhetysu Taldykorgan), M Andrey Gorbanets (RUS, Arsenal Tula), M Zhakyp Kozhamberdy (Okzhetpes Kokshetau), M Sheikhislam Kulakhmetov (FC Altay), M Yevgeny Shipitsin (RUS, FC Sochi), F Timur Baizhanov (Kyzyl-Zhar SK), F Jean-Eudes Maurice (HAI, Saigon FC), F Ruslan Mukhametshin (RUS, Arsenal Tula), F Maksym Feshchuk (UKR, FC Dacia)
Exits: G Alexandr Grigorenko, D Kirill Korotkevich, D Daniyar Bayaliyev, D Ilya Vorotnikov, D Anton Grigoryev (RUS), D Dmitry Yevstigneyev, D Alexandr Kirov, D Ioan Mera (ROU), M Sherkhan Bauyrzhan, M Vitaly Yevstigneyev, M Alisher Suley, M Bauyrzhan Baitana, M Taras Danilyuk, M Andriy Yakovlyev (UKR), F Malick Mané (SEN), F Oleksandr Pyschur (UKR), F Daurenbek Tazhimbetov
Outlook: Taraz's prodigal son Vait Talgayev is back in the fold, ready to guide his native team through its miraculously saved elite campaign. It will scarcely be a rosy path because the newly-looking team wouldn't have had much time to find their rhythm. Taraz have some good acquisitions such as Zhakyp Kozhamberdy and Maksym Feshchuk, however the squad hardly has depth. Additionally, trademark composure and discipline issues might affect the team's form, while statistics suggest Taraz are the usual suspects in terms of predicting survival fight. But again, Talgayev is a huge factor that could help them to avoid another relegation drama.
Early prediction: relegation battle