It’s that time of year again! That Champions League time of year. And for Zenit Saint Petersburg, it’s yet another chance to show Europe just what this club can do.
After stunning the continent to claim the UEFA Cup and Super Cup in 2008 Zenit has struggled in European competition, failing to make the quarter finals of any European tournament following that golden year and consistently failing to make the grade in the Champions League.
Just the one apperance in the last 16 in their history is deemed just not good enough in Saint Petersburg, and this year has to be the year when the 3 time Russian champions can finally really make an impact in the biggest club competition in the world. The Russians can’t say the group stage draw hasn’t been kind to them, with every major name being avoided.
That’s not to say that familiar foe Porto and Spaniards Atletico Madrid won’t be hard to get past though, in an incredibly even looking group that in which every point will be vital. Group minnows Austria Wien won’t want to be the whipping boys though, and Hulk and co have a real job on their hands if they’re going to make new Zenit history before the final come next May.
The opening match on the 18th of September won’t be the first for Zenit in this year’s competition however. After relinquishing their Russian champions crown to CSKA Moscow last season, a run through the gruelling qualifiers was awaiting starting as early as July.
Zenit’s only past experience of the early rounds of the Champions League was back in 2010 and it wasn’t a positive one, being sensationally knocked out by French side Auxerre.
This time round though things went much more to plan, thrashing 2012 Danish champions Nordsjælland 6-0 on aggregrate, and negotiating a potentially tricky tie with Paços de Ferreira comfortably 8-3.
Now though things are going to get a lot tougher, and even against debutants Austria Wien, the Russians aren’t going to have it all their own way.
Here’s my own opinion, on just how Zenit will fare against each opponent in group G, a group in which no clear favourite is visible.
Maybe it’s a good thing, to get the hardest match out of the way first. Zenit travel to Spain with a pretty dismal away record on the road in Europe despite having won both away legs in the qualifiers, and face a real uphill battle if they’re going to return to Russia with any points to show for their efforts.
Atletico for me stand out as slight group favourites especially after playing excellently against Barcelona in the Spanish Super Cup, and despite the loss of Falcao to Monaco, the Spaniards are looking strong. David Villa, signed from Barcelona, should make fill Falcao’s gap, and the often shaky looking Zenit back line it’s going to be a long night.
Rubin Kazan’s victory in Madrid in last season’s Europa League should give Zenit hope, but a point from Madrid would be a very acceptable result. In Saint Petersburg though, Zenit should be looking at getting the three points and nothing else.
Two gripping encounters await us, between the two teams which should both progress into the last 16 together.
These two clubs are just starting to get to know each other quite well, meeting in the group stages for the second time in three years. And a repeat result of Zenit’s success then should be on the cards.
The loss of James Rodriguez and João Moutinho has further enhanced Porto’s status as a selling club rather than a club with real ambitions of once again conquering Europe like they did almost 10 years ago.
If Zenit just about got the better of Porto two years ago with Hulk on the opposite team, with him now on their side the Russians should be able to rely on their strength to come through.
In Portugal a hard night awaits where the atmosphere is always red hot, but in Russia just like against Atletico, only a win should be deemed acceptable.
The games against the Portuguese champions fall together as the double header in on matchdays 3 and 4, two games which will surely decide the fate of both sides.
It’s hard to know what to expect from a team that practically no one knows about, but last year’s struggles against Anderlecht should be enough for Zenit to treat these games with the utmost respect. The Austrians came through the qualifiers squeezing past Faroe Islands’ outfit FH, before seeing off regular group stage participants Dinamo Zagreb 4-3 on aggregate.
Experienced striker Roman Kienast will be the main threat along with Philipp Hosiner who scored 32 goals domestically last season , and in Vienna, Zenit won’t have it easy at all. In Russia things should be pretty straight forward if the mindset for the game is at it should be, but only time will tell just how dangerous this Austrian club can really be, and if they can realistically challenge for European football next spring.
A lot depends on just Zenit themselves rather than their opponents, though. Last season’s disappointing group stage campaign where they fell just a point short of the last 16 should serve as a good lesson for a club which desperately needs to make a real impact in this competition sooner or later.
New young goalkeeper Yury Lodygin has proved an instant hit with the Saint Petersburg faithful with some wonderful stops, with one stunning point blank save against Pacos in the qualifiers standing out, and Igor Smolnikov, a right back signed from Krasnodar, has also made a great start to life with Zenit.
With troublemaker Igor Denisov now with Dynamo and Hulk staying put despite many summer rumours, coupled with excellent recent results, the Russians look to finally have the team spirit back, and appear set for a season which could make history.
Providing in team fights can be kept to a minimum, together with consistency on the pitch, the last 16 should be the least the club can expect, and a run to at least the quarter finals is what Zenit should really be demanding.
Written by Shaun Nicolaides
Follow Shaun on Twitter @zenitfan93
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