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.
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.