Zenit Spring 2017 Review

I didn’t post here in quite a while. Due to a lack of time I didn’t watch much football lately. Normally I would watch each and every Zenit match but this spring I only occasionally watched them play. Anyway, this is what was happening with the team in the last 4 months or so:

Zenit got eliminated from the Europa League by Anderlecht. In the first leg away in Brussels the Petersburgers got beaten 0-2. The pitch was terrible and the team could not play their best football but still did not deserve to lose by two goals. Unfortunately Dzyuba was guilty of missing a couple of sitters. Things would have been different had he scored. In the return leg in St.Petersburg, Zenit played really well, scored three times and eliminated the deficit from the first leg, but just a few minutes before the end the visitors scored to make it 3-1 (3-3 on aggregate) and progressed on the away goal rule. Somewhat unlucky elimination for Zenit who overall are a much better team than Anderlecht.

In the domestic league, the crucial moment came in round 23 when Zenit travelled to Moscow to face Spartak on April 16. The Petersburgers were trailing their hosts in the standings by a few points, and needed a win. However Spartak won the game 2-1 and proceeded to become the Russian champions, teir first title in 16 years. Zenit completely fell apart at the end of the season and only managed to end the season in third place, behind not only Spartak, but also CSKA. The team didn’t qualify for the Champions League and will start the next European season in the Europa League qualification round.

So, in his first season with Zenit, Romanian coach Mircea Lucescu had his team eliminated both from the Russian Cup and the Europa League, and finished third in the domestic league, missing on the Champions League place for the next season. This was a total failure and Lucescu was promptly fired by the club at the end of the season. He reportedly got 2.5 million euro in compensation from Zenit. The club announced the signing of the new coach, Italian Roberto Mancini, on June 1, 2017. The Sampdoria legend in his time as a player, Mancini also became successful as a coach. He won the league title in Italy three times with Inter in 2005-2008, as well as in England with Mancester City once in 2011-2012.

Roberto Mancini

Another important piece of news is changes in the management team at Zenit. Sergey Fursenko returned as the president (formally director general) of the football club, replacing Aleksandr Dyukov who stays at the club in a different role. Fursenko had worked in this position before, in 2006-2008, and his name is associated with Zenit’s league title of 2007 (the first in post-Soviet era) and the UEFA Cup title of 2008, which is still the biggest success in club’s history.

Zenit made a significant numeber of new signings this summer. The following players have been signed by the time of this writing: defender Denis Terentyev (Rostov), midfielders Aleksandr Yerokhin (Rostov), Christian Noboa (Rostov), Daler Kuzyayev (Terek), Leandro Paredes (Roma), and forward Dmitry Poloz (Rostov). The signing of central defender Kostas Manolas from Roma was cancelled at the last minute, reportedly because the player declined to have his salary denominated in Russian roubles, insisting on hard currency. Other prospective signings include Argentinean forward Sebastian Driussi from River Plate and winger Cristian Pavon who is also from Argentina (Boca Juniors). Zenit’s long-serving Portuguese creative midfielder Danny is leaving the club to continue his career in Europe. Midfielder Artur Yusupov has also left, he went to Rostov. Some other players probably will be sold or loaned out. A big re-shuffle of the team is going on at Zenit.

After two seasons without any silverware, the message of all this early summer news couldn’t be more clear, and the message is: “We’re gonna start winning again!” Let’s see how it works out, will be interesting to watch.

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Anderlecht – Zenit Preview, Europa League Last 32, Feb 16, 2017

Zenit opens the new year 2017 tomorrow with the first leg of Europa League Last 32 away at Anderlecht Brussels. Admittedly, I don’t know too much about Anderlecht. I saw them last summer in the CL qualification round against Rostov, where they were reasonably solid in the away fixture getting a 2-2 draw. They probably expected to finish the business in the return leg at home but things didn’t work out so well for them. Rostov was led by coach Berdyev whose sides are extremely hard to break when they concentrate on defense, so Rostov did not allow the Belgians to score in the return fixture and inflicted a painful 2-0 defeat on them, sending Anderlecht down into Europa League. Still, Anderlecht possesses sufficient power upfront as they managed to score 56 goals in the 26 games in the Belgian League where they are currently joint leaders with Brugge on 52 points, with the goal difference of 56-26. Anderlecht is the highest scoring team in the Belgian top flight at the moment. They beat Zulte-Waregem comfortably 4-2 at home on Sunday in their last game.

Zenit comes out of the winter break and this will be the team’s first official game since early December. The Petersburgers can boast very prolific attack, as they scored 17 goals in 6 group matches last fall. Coach Mircea Lucescu typically uses 4-2-3-1 formation with the lone striker Dzyba upfront supported by brilliant Brazilian Giuliano in the trequartista role. There’s a clear surplus of the attacking players on the wings: Shatov, Kokorin, and Mak are joined by former captain Danny who seems to have finally recovered from a long-term injury and is probably ready to play, which makes it 4 players for 2 places on the wings. The pair of holding midfielders will probably consist of tough guy Javi Garcia and Brazilian Hernani who has been signed as the replacement for Axel Witsel in this role. Overall, Zenit attack and midfield look pretty strong under Lucescu. Unfortunately I’m less convinced about the defense and especially the goalkeeper — the defensive capabilities is where I think Zenit’s main weaknesses are. In particular, since the departure of Garay last summer the team has been lacking a reliable pair of central defenders. With Lombaerts plagued by injuries, left back Criscito has been deputizing as central back alongside Luis Neto, which didn’t always work very well. In the winter transfer window Zenit signed a top-class Serbian defender Branislav Ivanovic from Chelsea. He can play as center back but there are indications that in the tomorrow’s game he will feature as the right back instead. Ivanovic has amazing pace and from what I saw his crosses are also excellent, so it looks like his participation will actually improve Zenit attack, and not necessarily the defense! Goalkeeper Lodygin is not very reliable. Along with his excellent instinct saves, he’s making way too many simple mistakes and some Zenit supporters admit they nearly have a panic attack every time Lodygin has to clear the ball under pressure. Zenit signed another goalkeeper this winter (Lunev from Ufa) but he’s not listed for the Europa League and with the departure of the backup goalkeeper Mikhail Kerzhakov to Ufa, Lodygin seems to be the only reasonable choice for the remainder of this season’s European campaign. Probable Zenit lineup for tomorrow:

       Danny - Dzyuba - Mak
             Giuliano
       Javi Garcia - Hernani
Zhirkov - Criscito - Neto - Ivanovic
             Lodygin

Zenit is the favourite to progress from this pair because the St.Petersburg outfit clearly has more quality in their ranks. However with the home advantage, Anderlecht surely have their chances for a positive result in the first leg. I think that most likely we will see an entertaining encounter with goals. Strong Anderlecht attack should be able to score against not very convincing Zenit defense at least once. At the other end, Zenit definitely should be able to score as well, because Lucescu will not park the bus in front of own penalty area but his team will rather play attacking football. Both teams to score is thus very likely, and the chances to see more than two goals are also very high in my opinion, despite this being the first leg of the tie. Also, I think Zenit will not lose in this first leg, getting at least a scored draw.

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Zenit 2016-2017 Midseason Review

Russian League

In the league, 17 rounds out of 30 have been played in Russia before the winter break. Zenit with 10 wins, 5 draws, and 2 defeats is currently second in the standings, trailing Spartak Moscow by 5 points:

Russian League Standings:

                    GP  W  D  L   F-A    Pts
1. Spartak          17  13 1  3  26-13   40
2. Zenit            17  10 5  2  33-13   35
3. CSKA             17  9  5  3  21-11   32
4. Terek            17  8  4  5  21-21   28
5. Krasnodar        17  7  7  3  24-14   28
6. Amkar            17  7  6  4  16-12   27

Scorers:

10 (2 pen) Smolov (Krasnodar)
8 (0) Balaj (Terek)
8 (1) Dzyuba (Zenit)
8 (1) Jonathas (Rubin)
7 (2) Giuliano (Zenit)
6 (0) Promes (Spartak)

The Petersburgers generally had a good first half of the campaign, winning the majority of the fixtures. They beat Spartak convincingly 4-2 at home and split points with CSKA 1-1, also at home. Zenit was hugely unlucky in the away fixture at Krasnodar, having a deserved 1-0 lead going into stoppages they conceded two goals in the remaining minutes due to errors by first Criscito and then Lodygin, and returned from this trip to Krasnodar with no points.

As obvious, Zenit has the goal of winning the league. Eliminating the 5-point gap between them and the leaders is not going to be easy but it won’t be impossible either. Spartak is having their best season in many years. They had signed an Italian coach Massimo Carrera very early in the season; this guy is specializing in defense and no wonder Spartak saw huge improvement in their defensive play. Admittedly, they were very lucky in some of their matches, scoring winning goals in the dying seconds on more than one occasion. Spartak made a big signing in this winter transfer campaign, adding Brazilian striker Luiz Adriano from Milan to their ranks. Another notable signing is midfielder Samedov from Loko. Spartak should be considered the title contender number one this coming spring. Zenit will play them away in Moscow in mid-April in what can well become a title decider.

The current Russian champions CSKA are third in the standings trailing Zenit by 3 points and Spartak by 8. In this situation it will be very difficult for them to fight for the title. They too will have one face-to-face meeting with Zenit, which will come as soon as March 4, in Moscow. Zenit probably will need to play for the win there to stay in the title race, while for the hosts the win is an absolute must. CSKA is going through changes at the moment. They fired their long-serving coach Leonid Slutsky before the winter break, replacing him with Victor Goncharenko from Belarus. At 39 years of age he’s a relatively young tactician who has been successfully working with Belorussian club BATE for a few years. In particular, he lead them to the Champions League group stage on one occasion, something which I think no other coach from Belarus has ever achieved. No major player signings in this transfer window for CSKA.

Back to Zenit now. Speaking of other domestic competitions: Zenit won the Russian SuperCup 2016 by beating league winners CSKA 1-0 in the first game of the new season back in July. The Petersburgers however crashed out of the Russian Cup 2016-17 with a bang, losing 0-4 at Anzhi in October.

Europa League

Zenit had an easy draw in the Europa League group stage and as I had expected, the Petersburgers didn’t have any problems qualifying from the first place. Zenit won the first five fixtures in the group and only lost the last one which was their last game before the vacation and didn’t decide anything for the team:

Europa League Group D:
Zenit 15
AZ 8
Maccabi Tel Aviv 7
Dundalk 4

15/09/16 Maccabi 3-4 Zenit
29/09/16 Zenit 5-0 AZ
20/10/16 Dundalk 1-2 Zenit
03/11/16 Zenit 2-1 Dundalk
24/11/16 Zenit 2-0 Maccabi
08/12/16 AZ 3-2 Zenit

Transfers

It has been a rather busy winter transfer campaign for Zenit. The club signed: Serbian international defender Branislav Ivanovic (Chelsea), goalkeeper Andrey Lunev (Ufa), Brazilian central midfielder Hernani (Atletico Paranaense), defensive midfielder Ibragim Tsallagov (Krylya Sovetov), French forward Yohan Mollo (Krylya Sovetov), and also defender Sergei Zuykov (Volgar Astrakhan). Midfield stallwart Belgian international Axel Witsel left the club and opted to go to play in China for big bucks, despite an interest from Milan. The 20-year-old Serbian central defender Vukasin Jovanovic went to French club Bordeaux on loan and immediately became a strter there, which is a bit surprising because he has never been given a real chance to play here at Zenit, despite the club’s problems with the lack of quality central defenders.

Coach Mircea Lucescu didn’t have much opportunity to sign players last summer but he was allowed to pick some now. Branislav Ivanovic is obviously a world-class player who can play as central defender as well as right back. At 32, he still has amazing pace, possibly the fastest player at this Zenit team! A great addition to the squad. 22-year-old Hernani is Brazilian, which comes as no surprise. Lucescu is known for his admiration of Brazilian players. He appreciates their skills and knows how to work with them. Suffice it to say, during his years at Shakhtar the Romaninan signed such Brazilian folks as Douglas Costa, Willian, and Luiz Adriano, who all have subsequently become top players in Europe. Add Armenian Henrikh Mkhitaryan who also has grown into a Dortmund and MU star after working with Lucescu at Shakhtar. So it should be obvious that the current Zenit coach has a great ability to pick promising players and develop them into big stars. If the club needs someone who to trust with transfers, then Mircea Lucescu is the best person for that. The first transfer initiated by him here at Zenit was the signing of Brazilian attacking midfielder Giuliano who immediately became Zenit’s best player after just a couple of months! Enough said. Hopefully Hernani will be no different. He is supposed to replace Witsel in central midfield, we’ll se how it works out but I’m rather optimistic about this signing.

As for the other newcomers: goalkeeper Lunev is supposed to became a backup for Lodygin who is brilliant but error-prone. The curent Zenit Number One loses concentration way too often and his silly mistakes had cost the team not once and not twice. Ideally I would like to see him replaced completely by a more reliable goalkeeper. Lunev does look brilliant too with his spectacular saves but he only has about a dozen matches under his belt in the Russian top flight so far, and more is needed before we’ll be able to judge him. Defensive midfielder Tsallagov is really good from what I saw, and he can also play as right beck, if necessary. Frenchman Mollo is nothing special in my view and it’s not clear what role he will play here at Zenit (if any at all). Zuykov comes from the Russian second division and I know nothing about him. The club could only list three new players for the Europa League playoff stage, and those three were Ivanovic, Hernani, and Tsallagov. The other three signings will probably get some playing time in the domestic league.

Speaking of the team’s prospects for this spring, I think it’s realistic for Zenit to fight for the domestic title and the face-to-face fixture at Spartak Moscow is expected to be the crucial point in the title race. As for the Europa League, the club definitely is setting the goal of winning this trophy as well. Lucescu has won it already in the past with Shakhtar. However in the presence of such clubs as Villarreal or Mourinho’s Manchester United in the EL knockout stages, it will surely be a very difficult task. Also Fiorentina, Celta, and Tottenham would probably be viewed as favourites if paired against Zenit. On the other hand, Zenit did beat both Villareal in the UEFA Cup and MU in the European Super Cup back in 2008, winning both trophies, so who knows… Zenit plays against Anderlecht away at Brussels in the first round of the EL knockout stage this Thursday, February 16, at 23:05 Moscow Time.

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Zenit Season 2016-17: So Far So Good

In the summer of 2016 Zenit went through some changes. Previous coach Andre Villas-Boas had departed in the end of May and the 71-year old Romanian Mircea Lucescu was hired to replace him. Zenit sold star player Hulk to China for big bucks. Star central defender Garay had to leave the club due to family problems and he was transferred to Valencia in Spain. The club brought in central defender Novoseltsev from Rostov. Also joined attacking midfielders Robert Mak (Slovak international) and Giuliano (became Brazil international just recently). The start of the season for Zenit wasn’t very impressive but it wasn’t bad either. 1-0 win over CSKA in the Russian Supercup brought the team its first silverware of the new season. That win was followed by 4 league games in which Zenit only achieved one victory, the other 3 fixtures resulting in draws. Well they say that in the first few matches with a new coach it’s still the old coach’s team. So it looked exactly true in the first matches of the season — not many goals scored but bullet-proof defense and no losses. And here’s what happened next: Zenit beat Amkar 3-0, Tula 5-0, Maccabi Tel Aviv 4-3, Rubin 4-1, Tambov 5-0, failed to win at Anzhi (2-2), then beat AZ Alkmmaar 5-0, Spartak 4-2, and Ural 2-0. That’s 8 wins in 9 matches, with 34 goals scored!! Pretty amazing results, and now it’s obviously a Mircea Lucescu team.

Zenit has had 3 top-class coaches working at the club for the last 10 years: Dick Advocaat, Luciano Spalletti, Andre Villas-Boas, and all of them were reasonably successful here in St.Petersburg. And now Lucescu. Honestly, I was a little bit sceptical about him. No doubt that the Romanian is a very good specialit, but the only time he worked for a top-class team was at Inter Milan back in 1999 and he lasted for only 4 months there, which can hardly be called a success. He worked in Turkey and Ukraine after that, most recently spending 12 years at Shakhtar Donetsk. Shakhtar is a good club no doubt but working for 12 years in the Ukranian league indicates a clear lack of ambition for me. The good news is that Lucescu makes his teams play attractive attacking football and Zenit is no exception. Watching the team this season is a great entertainment. However, how Zenit will fare against stronger opposition (in the Europa League playoffs next spring, for example) remains to be seen.

Mircea Lucescu

Mircea Lucescu

Lucescu is using the 4-2-3-1 formation. A typical Zenit lineup currently is: Lodygin – Smolnikov, Neto, Criscito, Zhirkov – Witsel, Javi Garcia – Kokorin, Giuliano, Shatov – Dzyuba. The first-choice goalkeeper Lodygin is very talented and brilliant at times but recently he has become increasigly error-prone, and his mistakes have cost Zenit several conceded goals in important fixtures, away at Maccabi and at home to Spartak, so the club is reportedly looking for a replacement. There’s also a problem with central defenders. After the departure of “Mr.Reliable” Garay, Zenit has left with only 2 central defenders: Luis Neto and Nicolas Lombaerts. There’s also the new arrival Novoseltsev but it doesn’t look like he’s going to be getting much playing time.Lombaerts, who has been with the club for 9 years now, has his share of health problems, so in many cases the Italian left back Criscito is playing as center back. Two defensive midfielders Witsel and Javi Garcia are world class and Zenit’s rivals generally find it very difficult to break down the center. Lots of variety in attack with several good attacking midfielders, the key player here is Brazilian Giuliano. He can be viewed as the replacement for Hulk wearing the same number 7 shirt but he’s in fact much better as a team player than his individualistic predecessor. Giuliano’s one-touch passing is fantastic and he gets a lot of good passes in return which allowed him to score 6 times already in his 8 games for Zenit. The lone striker role in occupied by big forward Dzyuba, he’s probably European class but the problem is that he’s the only Zenit striker good for this level and if he gets injured then there’s no adequate replacement.

Finishing only 3rd in the league last season, Zenit failed to qualify for the Champions League so the team is playing in the Europa League this year. The group stage draw pitted the St.Petersburg outfit against AZ Alkmaar, Dundalk, and Maccabi Tel Aviv. A rather easy draw for Zenit, no big clubs to rival them. The Petersburgers were in the CL playoffs just last season while none of the other teams in the group had ever achieved anything near. Zenit has much more quality than the other three clubs and I woudn’t be surprised to see them winning all 6 group matches again, just like they did back in 2010 when they played at the EL group stage for the last time.

This fall Zenit has a rather easy schedule: most of the league rivals (CSKA, Spartak, Loko) travelled to St.Petersburg in the first half of the season, so no difficult away fixtures for Zenit. No serious opposition in the Europa League either. Things might become more difficult next spring, and that’s when Lucescu and his team will really be tested. Zenit is doing really well against underdogs so far. The good news here is that beating (in good style) low- and midtable teams in the domestic league is the key to winning the Russian league, and this is what I think will happen to Zenit next spring — the league title. As for a possible success in Europe, I’m not so sure. But so far until the new year, the Zenit supporters can just relax and enjoy the show.

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Zenit Spring 2016 Roundup

Champions League

February 16 – March 9, 2016: In the Champions League, Zenit was eliminated in the last 16 after losing to Benfica 1-3 on aggregate. Zenit didn’t look as bad as the final scoreline suggests. In the first leg away in Lisbon neither side created much in terms of threatening the opposition’s goal and it looked like the game was going to end goalless when in the stoppage time Jonas gave the hosts the winner heading in after a free kick. In the second leg Zenit was on the way to overcome the 0-1 deficit when Hulk scored for the hosts in the middle of the second half. However 5 minutes from time the Petersburgers conceded a fluke goal: a speculative shot by Raul Jimenez from outside the area hit the crossbar and Gaitan tapped in the rebound into the empty net. After which Zenit completely fell apart and conceded the second goal, again in stoppages; although it didn’t matter already. A rather painful emilination from the hands of Benfica who are a very decent side but I still have a feeling that Zenit should have progressed from this pair.

Russian Cup

In the Russian Cup, Zenit eliminated Krasnodar in the qurterfinals in February at home in St.Petersburg. The regular time ended goalless but in the extra time a new signing Brazilian Mauricio scored from a wonderfully taken free kick. The really good thing was that before the free kick Mauricio took the ball from Hulk thus not allowing his compatriot to screw up another opportunity. In the semifinals Zenit faced Amkar away in Perm in April; again there was a draw after the regular time (1-1). After the extra time ended goalless, the penalty shoot-out followed. Normally, in all cup matches coach Villas-Boas was fielding the second goalkeeper Mikhail Kerzhakov. Kerzhakov did really well in the semifinal too, but one minute before the end of the extra time he was substituted for the first-choice goalkeeper Lodygin who is a penalty specialist. And Lodygin duly won the penalty shoot-out for Zenit. On May 2, 2016 Zenit demolished CSKA 4-1 in the cup final in Kazan, with two goals by Hulk; Kokorin and Yusupov scored the other two. Mikhail Kerzhakov played the complete 90 minutes in the final, deservedly winning the title.

Russian League

In the Russian League, Zenit was trailing CSKA by 7 points going into the winter break and I saw no realistic chance of them catching up and winning the league this season. Zenit did play really well in the league in spring, winning 9, drawing 2 and losing only once in 12 fixtures, but they still finished 6 points behind CSKA, and 4 points behind the revelation of the season Rostov:

1. CSKA      65
2. Rostov    63
3. Zenit     59
4. Krasnodar 56
5. Spartak   50
6. Lokomotiv 50

This result should be considered as failure because Zenit haven’t qualified for the next season’s Champions League. The team will start in the Europa League group stage as the national cup winners. Despite the non-successful league campaign, the Zenit fans probably got some satisfaction from the fact that by beating Dynamo Moscow 3-0 away in the last round, Zenit sent Dynamo down to the second division for the first time in the Moscow club’s history.

Managerial Changes

The head coach Andre Villas-Boas has worked in St.Petersburg for 2 years and 3 months, completing two full seasons at the helm here at Zenit. Under the guidance of the Portuguese tactician, Zenit won the league in 2015, the Russian Cup in 2016, and the Super Cup in 2015. The Petersburgers did very well to finish first in their Champions League group in 2015 and in my view were a bit unlucky to have been eliminated in the last 16. Andre Villas-Boas has achieved the best record among all coaches in Zenit history for the percentage of points collected by the team under his guidance. He also can boast a remarkable record against Zenit’s biggest rivals CSKA and Spartak: 4 wins and 1 draw in 5 matches against CSKA, 3 draws and 1 win against Spartak, including the impressive 5-2 thrashing of the historic rivals in April 2016. Not a sigle game lost to CSKA or Spartak in over 2 years! I find it ridiculous that many Zenit supporters are unhappy with the team’s results of the last two years and are glad to see Villas-Boas go. I actually continue to think that he’s an excellent specialist and did a reasonably good job here at Zenit.

Andre Villas-Boas

Andre Villas-Boas

Andre Villas-Boas had his contact with Zenit running out in June 2016. As early as this past winter the Portuguese had announced that he was not going to extend the contract so in the spring months the club was working on finding the replacement. In the last days of May, Zenit has announced the signing of former Shakhtar Donetsk coach, 70-year old Romanian Mircea Lucescu on a 2-year deal, with an optional 1-year extension.

There’s a summer break in the Russian football now, which will last until late July when the 2016-2017 season starts. Zenit players Lodygin, Smolnikov, Shatov, Dzyuba, and Kokorin have been called up to the Russian national team for the Euro-2016 in France. Axel Witsel will play for Belgium in that tournament. Hulk went to Copa America to play for Brazil. Zenit will play their first match of the 2016-2017 season on July 23 when they will face champions CSKA in the Russian Super Cup.

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Benfica – Zenit Champions League Preview

Champions League Last 16
February 16, 2016
Benfica – Zenit

I’m rather optimistic about Zenit’s chances in this fixture. I don’t think the hosts should actually be the favorites, and here’s some factors which I think are relevant:

Zenit has better players than Benfica. Over the previous several years Zenit has been signing quality players thanks to a flow of money coming to the club from their big sponsor Gazprom. Benfica has been doing completely the opposite, they have been continously selling their best players over the years. Now Zenit actually has some of Benfica’s best players of the past, namely Garay, Javi Garcia, and Witsel. Playing against former club typically gives players additional motivation so I expect these three to do particularly well in the familiar environment of the Da Luz stadium. Benfica is a solid side but in terms of quality of players I think Zenit is better, with their only problematic position being the goalkeeper.

Zenit has Hulk. Benfica can’t boast having a player of such quality, who on a good day can decide a game singlehandedly. This season the Brazilian has also established a good partnership with Zenit’s big forward Dzyuba and collected a lot of assists, somewhat uncharacteristically for him. Hulk had played in Portugal for Porto in the past and might get additional motivation from facing the old rivals, too. It’s true that he’s inconsistent and can disappoint on a bad day, but I find it generally a good strategy to go against the odds when Zenit and Hulk are involved — they can lose unexpectedly, but can also beat almost any team. Benfica doesn’t have any big stars; they do have future stars maybe, for example they have a couple of very promising youngsters in Renato Sanches and Gonsalo Guedes but both are only 18 and not experienced enough for the high level of the CL playoffs.

Zenit coach Villas-Boas is Portugese. He knows Portugese football in general and Benfica in particular very well, probably better than his counterpart knows about Zenit. The two teams with their respective Portugese coaches play in similar style and there won’t be any tactical surprises in this fixture. Without some tactical revelations though the hosts might find it difficult to beat Zenit assuming the Petersburgers have players who are stronger individually. In addition, Zenit has better defense than Benfica. Speaking of defense, for the Tuesday’s match the hosts will miss their defensive stallwart and captain Luisao who is injured (a long-term absentee).

I watched a couple of Benfica games back in December after they had been drawn to face Zenit. My immediate reaction was “how did this team manage to qualify for the CL playoffs?!” The games I watched were 0-0 versus Madeira, and 1-0 versus Guimaraes. To me, Benfica looked rather clueless in attack, and in the second match Guimaraes was actually the better side and didn’t deserve to lose; thier coach Sergio Conceicao had all the reasons to be unhappy with the refereeing, his team played quite well while I can’t say the same about Benfica. I know that Benfica had improved since then and achieved good results in January by extending their winning streak to 11 matches in all competitions. Impressive result, but it only proves they are good at beating weaker opposition. Benfica are an attacking-minded team with vulnerable defense. They have sufficient power upfront to overcome most teams in the domestic league but playing against stronger teams is a different story; last Friday’s clash with Porto serves as an example and Benfica indeed lost 1-2 in the Classico on home soil. I won’t be surprised if I see a similar result on Tuesday.

This is Zenit’s first match after a 2-month winter break and this may be the only factor that can potentially work against them. However Zenit didn’t have problem beating PSV away in the first match of last year. A year before that they lost to Dortmund 2-4 at home in the first game, but that game involved a freak start when Zenit found themselves 0-2 down after just 4 minutes of play so that result had to be considered more of an accident rather than bad football by Zenit. I don’t believe that the long winter break will pose a big problem for the visitors.

Zenit players have particular motivation to do well in the Champions League. The domestic campaign this season has been a disaster so far, and things in the domestic league now look broken beyond repair. Realistically I see no chance for Zenit to win the title this year. Coach Villas-Boas will be leaving in June, and some of the players will follow. It is important for the players to showcase themselves at the European stage this spring. There was a mood in the team last fall to “achieve something” in Europe and couple of players actually conceded in interviews that they were giving priority to the Champions League matches over the Russian league; I see no reason why they would chsange their attitude now, so they will come out fully motivated. Zenit has been doing reasonably well in the away fixtures in the CL in the past, beating Lyon, Valencia, Benfica, Porto, Dortmund, and Milan in recent years.

The two teams met 4 times in the CL in the last 4 years, Zenit came out winners 3 times with Benfica winning once, however the Lisbon side eliminated Zenit in the 2011-12 CL playoffs. Zenit won two of the more recent meetings at the last season’s group stage.

As for Zenit team news: the only notable absence is the attacking right back Smolnikov who is injured. Initially he was expected to miss a couple of months but his recovery went faster than expected and he’ll be ready to play in about a week’s time. An experienced Russian international Zhirkov has been brought in as a backup for the full backs Anyukov and Criscito. Other acquisitions in the winter transfer window were Brazilian central midfielder Mauricio and Russian international forward Kokorin. None of the three new players are expected to start against Benfica though. Villas-Boas is very conservative when it comes to changing the starting lineup, and I expect to see all the familiar faces in the first match of 2016, like: Lodygin – Anyukov, Garay, Lombaerts, Criscito – Witsel, Javi Garcia, Danny – Shatov, Dzyuba, Hulk (this also happens to be the 11 players who started in Zenit’s last preparational match versus Orebro).

I think Zenit should be viewed as favorites and expect them to win in Lisbon (or at least not to lose), and eventually to qualify for the Champions League quarterfinals after the second leg at home.

(Also posted at (bettingadvice.com)

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(Old) Zenit News, February 2016

I haven’t updated the blog in a while, so here’s the main points of the last 5 months:

Zenit qualified for the Champions League playoffs with an impressive result of 5 wins in 6 group matches. The only defeat came in the last round when the team had already secured the first place in the group and lost 1-2 away to Gent. The list of Zenit’s matches in the Champions League group stage last fall and the final group table:

16-Sep-2015 Valencia 2 – 3 Zenit
29-Sep-2015 Zenit 2 – 1 Gent
20-Oct-2015 Zenit 3 – 1 Lyon
04-Nov-2015 Lyon 0 – 2 Zenit
24-Nov-2015 Zenit 2 – 0 Valencia
09-Dec-2015 Gent 2 – 1 Zenit

Group H:
Zenit 15
Gent 10
Valencia 6
Lyon 4

Things didn’t go so well in the domestic league for the reigning champions though. The Petersburgers are currently 5th in the league standings on 30 points (8 wins, 6 draws, 4 defeats), 7 points adrift of leaders CSKA Moscow with 12 matches to go. I don’t believe Zenit has any realistic chances of catching the rivals and winning the title this season.

In the winter transfer window Zenit signed an experienced winger Yuriy Zhirkov (32) from Dynamo Moscow, striker Aleksandr Kokorin (24) also from Dynamo, and Brazilian central midfielder/playmaker Mauricio (27) from Terek. Both Zhirkov and Kokorin are Russian internationals, while the Brazilian has just obtained his Russian passport after having played in Russia for over 5 years, and might also start playing for the Russian national squad in the future, if selected. The importance of Mauricio’s passport for Zenit is that he won’t be counted against the limit on foreigners in the Russian league. I was very impressed by Mauricio’s skills in one of Zenit’s recent preparational matches. Zhirkov also looks like a good acquisition to me: he formerly played for CSKA and Chelsea and has significant Champions League experience.

Zenit’s first match after the winter break will be the Champions League last 16 fixture away at Benfica Lisbon on Tuesday, February 16. The return leg in St.Petersburg will be played on Wednesday, March 9.

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CSKA 2 – 2 Zenit

Russian League, Round 8
September 12, 2015
CSKA 2 – 2 Zenit
Goals: Lombaerts 9 og, Doumbia 22 – Hulk 39 pen, Smolnikov 88
Missed Penalty: Dzagoev 71 (saved)
Khimki, Arena Khimki
Att: 15000

CSKA: Akinfeev – Fernandes, V.Berezutskiy, Ignashevich, Schennikov – Wernbloom, Dzagoev, Roman Eremenko, Tosic (86 A.Berezutskiy), Musa, Doumbia (80 Milanov)
Zenit: Lodygin – Smolnikov, Garay, Lombaerts, Anyukov – Javi Garcia, Witsel, Danny (c) (83 Fayzulin) – Hulk, Dzyuba, Shatov (74 Tkachuk)

       Shatov - Dzyuba - Hulk
          Danny - Witsel
            Javi Garcia
Anyukov - Lombaerts - Garay - Smolnikov
              Lodygin

The hosts were the better side for most of the first half. They played high pressure and Zenit was having trouble starting attacks, of which they created very few in the first 25 minutes. CSKA opened the scoring very early in the game although they didn’t have to do much to achieve that: Lombaerts in the Zenit area chested down a long ball towards own goal, which caught Lodygin by surprise and the ball rolled into the net. A bad error by the Belgian defender who was included in the starting lineup again after a few games on the bench. The second CSKA goal soon followed: Zenit defense forgot Schennikov in the area and Doumbia headed in his cross from close range, 2-0 after just 22 minutes. After finding themselves two goals down Zenit had to push forward and created a few decent attacks. In one of them Hulk was fouled in the area; he converted the penalty himself.

The crucial moment of the match came in the second half, about 20 minutes from the end. Danny lost possession in the CSKA half, the hosts immediately organized a fast break and Garay fouled Doumbia in the area for a penalty. However, Lodygin saved Dzagoev’s spot kick, allowing Zenit to stay in the game. A few minutes later at the other end Smolnikov had a penalty appeal turned down by the ref, it did look like a penalty but with Smolnikov you never know. Dreadful Danny was eventually substituted for Fayzulin who only spent 5 minutes on the pitch before creating the equalizer: he found Smolnikov in the CSKA area with a wonderful defense-splitting pass and the Zenit right back chipped the ball over advancing Akinfeev, 2-2.

Not the best game by Zenit. Uncharacteristic errors by Lombaerts and Garay, typically terrible game by Danny, and ineffective Dzyuba upfront. Shatov was mostly invisible although he had an excuse — he played with an injury. He was eventually subbed for youth team player Tkachuk for whom it was his debut for the main team; Tkachuk however was no more visible on the pitch than Shatov. Still, with all those problems the team was able to snatch a point in this difficult away fixture. This Zenit team is still very hard to beat and in general has very good potential despite various prolems at the club at the moment.

Russian League Standings:
CSKA 22
Loko 17
Zenit 16
Spartak 16
Krasnodar 12
Rostov 12
Dynamo 12
Krylya Sovetov 10

Next Match: Wed September 16, 9:45pm Valencia – Zenit

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Another Shock Defeat: Zenit 1 – 3 Krylya Sovetov

Russian League, Round 7
August 29, 2015
Zenit 1 – 3 Krylya Sovetov
Goals: Taranov 49 og – Gabulov 17, Kornilenko 52, 56
Missed Penalty: Hulk 61 (saved)
St.Petersburg, Petrovsky Stadium
Att: 18000

Zenit: Lodygin – Smolnikov (75 Anyukov), Neto, Garay, Criscito (c) – Javi Garcia, Yusupov (46 Ryazantsev), Witsel (61 Danny) – Hulk, Dzyuba, Shatov
Krylya Sovetov: Konyukhov – Burlak, Kontsedalov, Taranov, Nadson – Tsallagov, Gabulov (86 Simaeys), Pomerko, Drahun (90 Gorbatenko), Mollo (83 Bateau), Kornilenko

       Shatov - Dzyuba - Hulk
          Witsel - Yusupov
            Javi Garcia
Criscito - Garay - Neto - Smolnikov
              Lodygin

Former Zenit player Kornilenko scored twice to ensure a shock victory by his club Krylya Sovetov who had just returned to the top flight this year after a one-year spell in the lower division. The crucial moment in the game came after an hour when, with Zenit trailing 1-2, the selfish Brazilian star Hulk failed to convert a penalty, again. Coach Andre Villas-Boas got sent off in the end of first half after a clash with the 4th official, incredilby it looked like the official was the one who initiated the physical contact!! The Zenit coach was subsequently banned from the bench for 6 games, which I think is a ridiculous punishment.

The big game coming after the international break on September 12 when Zenit travels to leaders CSKA. The Muscovites have won all 7 first matches of the season and now enjoy a 6-point lead over rivals Zenit. A massive game is expected.

Meanwhile, Zenit were drawn to play Valencia, Lyon, and Gent in their Champions League group, the first match is the difficult away fixture at Valencia on September 16.

Russian League Standings:
CSKA 21
Loko 17
Zenit 15
Spartak 13
Rostov 12
Dynamo 12
Krylya Sovetov 10
Krasnodar 9

Next Match: Sat September 12, 2:00pm CSKA – Zenit

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Rubin 1 – 3 Zenit

Russian League, Round 6
August 24, 2015
Rubin 1 – 3 Zenit
Goals: Bilyaletdinov 72 – Shatov 16, 84, Hulk 78
Kazan, Central Stadium
Att: 11000

Rubin: Ryzhikov – Oleg Kuzmin, Kvirkvelia, Lemos (56 Dyadyun), Cotugno (56 Carlos Eduardo), Kambolov, Blagoy Georgiev, Bilyaletdinov, Ozdoev, Nabiullin, Kanunnikov
Zenit: Lodygin – Smolnikov, Neto, Garay, Criscito (c) – Javi Garcia, Yusupov, Witsel (79 Danny) – Hulk, Dzyuba (85 Ryazantsev), Shatov (90+2 Evseev)

       Shatov - Dzyuba - Hulk
          Witsel - Yusupov
            Javi Garcia
Criscito - Garay - Neto - Smolnikov
              Lodygin

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