The group stage of the most glittering and celebrated club competition in the world is once again upon us, and already before a ball has been kicked, one club is being talked about more than any other.
Europe is still reeling from Zenit Saint Petersburg’s stunning summer double swoop for world and European stars Hulk and Axel Witsel, and if expectations weren’t already high enough amongst the 3 times Russian champions, they certainly are now.
After making the last 16 of last season’s Champions League for the first time in the club’s history, anything other than at least a quarter final place this time around would be seen as again not fulfilling the potential that Zenit possesses, and with 2 world stars on board, it’s hard not to agree with those who are fancying Zenit as one of the dark horses in this year’s competition.
There’s certainly a lot to build on from last season’s efforts. A huge amount of excitement awaited Zenit’s first group stage appearance since 2008 after the qualifying failure of 2010, and everything that followed even exceeded everyone’s expectations. Drawn alongside fellow Eastern European superpowers Shakhtar Donetsk, reigning Europa League champions Porto and surprise package APOEL Nicosia, chances for getting out of the group were generally regarded as even all around, and there were plenty of thrills and spills accompanying some simply beautiful football.
Zenit’s match in Donetsk against Shakhtar, an enthralling 2-2 draw, was one of the matches of the whole tournament let alone the group, and while that was clearly the standout game, drama was witnessed throughout.
In such a tight looking group, it was always inevitable that everything would be decided on the last matchday, and the pivotal match of the group came at the home of Portuguese giants Porto, hosting Zenit on matchday 6. The Russians were only in need of the 1 point, but if it was going to be achieved at the home of one of the strongest clubs in the world, it would be some feat.
But after 90 intense and nerve filled minutes, it was official- for the first time in their history Zenit had made it through to the knockout stage of the Champions League, and had experienced and rock solid goalkeeper Vyacheslav Malafeev to thank for somehow repelling everything that Porto threw at him.
The reward for that was a last 16 pairing with Benfica, yet another Portuguese club. And while Zenit had luck on their side on their previous trip to Portugal, their luck deserted them this time around. Having won the home leg in Saint Petersburg 3-2, yet again only a draw was required but unlike what happened in Porto, here in Lisbon the Russians fear and lack of confidence when playing on the road was finally punished, being well beaten 2-0 and without ever showing any urgency even when it was so badly needed.
But it’s a sign of a bigger and deeper problem. Zenit are without a win on the road in Europe since December 2010, a 3-0 win against Greek outfit AEK Athens in the Europa League, and it’s a problem that is only getting worse and worse.
After defeat by Benfica, coach Luciano Spalletti himself stated that Zenit’s lack of experience cost them dear, and you can’t disagree. Even when time was running out, the Russians seemed overwhelmed by the whole situation and barely able to even move. It was a carbon copy of the match against Porto in the group stages, except that on that occasion, lady luck was smiling upon the Saint Petersburgers.
So why should it be any different this time around? It’s a question that can be answered by using just one simple word- experience. It’s an unwritten rule that if you want to succeed at the highest possible level, you have to lose and do many things wrong before, to gain the necessary experience to cope when things start going wrong, to be able to ride many fierce storms.
Finally, Zenit have this experience. Having held on to the central core of the team from last season’s exploits, while adding two well needed acquisitions, optimism should be growing and growing, and that certainly appears to be the case. Hulk and Axel Witsel have enough Champions League experience between themselves, and while the excitement surrounding their arrivals will soon calm down, they will be heavily relied on to deliver instant success.
It doesn’t all depend on them however. The Russians have class oozing throughout the whole team, but much will rely on the fact that main striker Alexander Kerzhakov will have to have his shooting boots on. Coming off a somewhat indifferent European Championships with Russia, failing to even register a shot on target, and also failing to score in last season’s Champions League, he has to prove to the whole of Europe that he can play and score at the highest level possible.
While he’s been at his sparking best in this season’s early stages of the Russian championship, European and domestic action are very contrasting indeed, but in order to once again gain the respect of fans in Europe and to progress out of the group with Zenit, he has to play as he knows he can, but most of all, he has to play with confidence. But that doesn’t just apply to him- that applies to the whole team.
For whatever reason Zenit severely lack confidence playing at the highest level, but at the rare opportunities that we got to see Zenit play with confidence, the results followed. A stunning second half performance against Porto in Saint Petersburg saw the Portuguese side swept away comfortably, and as already mentioned, the 2-2 match against Shakhtar was simply stunning.
Just on the basis of the group that Zenit find themselves in this time around, confidence just shouldn’t even be an issue.
Drawn alongside AC Milan, Anderlecht and Malaga, there is in theory, very little that the Russians should be afraid of. Milan have been fading as a force in Europe for a number of years now, and with the summer losses of stars Thiago Silva and Zlatan Ibrahimovic to PSG of France, things have only gotten worse. While still remaining a great team and a big club, Zenit can feel confident playing against such a club.
However, maybe strangely, the away match in Italy will be easier than the match in Russia, with Milan traditionally performing poorly at home in the group stages, but when playing away from home, Milan are at their most dangerous.
Milan and Zenit are without doubt the clear favourites of the group, but if Zenit play as they can, qualification in first place of the group should be achieved. But don’t underestimate Anderlecht and Malaga, especially the Spaniards.
Malaga won 13 out of their 19 home league games last season in Spain, and already this season have made their best league start in their history, and boast European experience with ex-Bayern defender Martin Demichelis and the well-travelled but highly talented striker Javier Saviola.
Belgian champions Anderlecht are in the opinion of many, the weakest team of the group, having just scraped past Cypriot minnows AEL in the qualifiers, but themselves have plenty of experience playing at the highest level.
Comparing the group to last year’s group, you could say that this year, maybe the draw has been even slightly more kind, but if I am honest, it is not so important who the opponents are.
Zenit’s main opponent is themselves, and if that barrier that is preventing the players from playing with confidence at home and most importantly away from home is broken, anything, literally anything, is possible.
The team has been sufficiently strengthened, and all key players in the team from last season’s exploits have all been held on to.
Once Zenit fires on all cylinders, there is no stopping them, and if that mental barrier can finally be destroyed, we could be about to witness something very special.
Also, please check out this excellent preview of Zenit’s Champions League campaign on Youtube here.
Written by Shaun Nicolaides
Follow him on Twitter @zenitfan93
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