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
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.
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
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.