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.
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.
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.
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 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.