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Repeating last year’s overwhelming success in the group stages of the UEFA Champions League was always going to be hard to achieve – but 3 matchdays into this season, and everything has proven so much harder than anyone ever expected.
After Zenit’s and CSKA’s exploits last season all the way to the last 16, the first time two Russian clubs had progressed together to the knockout stages of the Champions League, Zenit are once again having another crack at the Champions League courtesy of retaining their title as Russian champions while this season instead of CSKA, their hated rivals Spartak are the second Russian representatives.
While expectations for Spartak were considerably lower than Zenit’s having been drawn in a group with the almost unbeatable Barcelona, Benfica and Celtic meanwhile Zenit were pitted against Malaga, Celtic and fading force AC Milan. Surprisingly, results of the two Russian clubs have practically mirrored each other, with both clubs being left with only 3 points each after 3 matches.
After splashing out extraordinary amounts of cash on headline signings Hulk and Axel Witsel, 3 points from 3 games is not the return than Zenit were expecting, while given the company that Spartak find themselves in, 3 points isn’t such a bad result so far. But both still are clinging on to the hope of qualifying for the knockout stages, and while it is certainly realistic to think that come spring next year Zenit and Spartak will both find themselves still involved in Champions League, but there’s a lot of work to be done on both parts. But
The Russian adventure in this year’s group stages kicked off with the big spenders of Europe, Zenit Saint Petersburg. And it proved a game that killed all the optimism in the Zenit camp following the big name signings. On paper however, the Russians looked to have all the chances of carrying on the optimism forward.
Assigned with playing Spanish Champions League debutants Malaga away from home, despite having a dismal away record in Europe Zenit were regarded by many as heavy favourites in this game, having been in the last 16 last season and given the fact that Malaga were competition debutants. But if Zenit underestimated their opponents at all, they did so at their peril. Their Spanish hosts, who already boasted a superb home record, made it clear they weren’t going to let their first opportunity to compete at the highest level pass them by.
The porous Zenit defence just couldn’t compete with the pace and trickery that the Spaniards possessed, and just 20 minutes in, and the game was already practically decided. Inside 3 minutes, the previously unknown Spanish attacking midfielder Isco had weaved his magic around the Zenit defence to fire a delightful curling shot off the far post and in to give the debutants the perfect start, and just 10 minutes later it was two, with the much travelled Argentine striker Javier Saviola sneaking in through a static Zenit defence to slot home.
Although Zenit regrouped somewhat and created some half decent chances, the result was never in doubt, and the 20 year old Isco rounded off a perfect night for the Spaniards by firing home a powerful shot giving Zenit goalkeeper Vyacheslav Malafeev – who was by far Zenit’s best player on the night – no chance.
3-0 is a scoreline which nobody ever expected, but Zenit’s lack of enthusiasm and lack of defending ability were horribly highlighted, and the Russians travelled home with their tail between their legs to a scathing media reception – and rightly so.
And so it was left to Spartak to regain Russia’s badly damaged reputation in Europe following the demolition of champions Zenit. But take one look at who Spartak were playing against, and all hope went out of the window.
Like Zenit, they also had their first Champions League assignment in Spain, but while Zenit had competition debutants – Spartak had probably the best football team that the world has ever seen, Barcelona. And for a team like Spartak, who have a seriously unreliable defence, for many it was always going to be a question of how many goals could Barca score against them.
The first 15 minutes only fuelled these expectations even more, with Christian Tello coolly stroking home the first goal in the Spartak net, and Spartak offering nothing in response. But then everything changed on the half hour mark. Barca defender Daniel Alves contrived to bundle the ball into his own net, and suddenly it was 1-1 and Spartak had a surprising foothold in the game. And if that wasn’t already good enough, it got even better.
Spartak fans got a glimpse of paradise as a minute before the hour mark emerging midfielder Romulo finished off a rare counterattack and it was looking like Spartak could do to Barcelona what Rubin did to them a few years ago – beating them 2-1 in their own backyard.
Lightning doesn’t usually strike twice however. By going ahead 2-1 Spartak had only achieved in waking up Lionel Messi, and the Argentine magician promptly took Spartak fans back down from paradise to a fall on the hard floor of reality, scoring 2 late goals for a 3-2 Spanish win.
But unlike their Russian counterparts Zenit, Spartak had earned many plaudits for such a performance – and although they didn’t gain any points – the Muscovites had proven that they have strength that previously, no one knew about.
As for Zenit however, their reputation was in tatters following their humbling defeat in Spain, and badly needed to repair their image on matchday two. That was always going to be easier said than done however, given the situation within the club and the opponents.
European giants AC Milan were the first visitors to the Petrovsky stadium in Saint Petersburg this season – and although Milan are still regarded as one of Europe’s all time great clubs – the club itself is going through somewhat of a transitional phase, with the current Milan team regarded as one of the weakest teams in Milan’s recent history.
But this was always going to be a tough test for Zenit, given that the club was in the midst of a crisis, after midfield lynchpin Igor Denisov was frozen out of the team for refusing to play unless he got his wages increased.
This game was always going to be one of the most important in the group, and Zenit coach Luciano Spalletti understood this perfectly, but just like in Spain, the Russians decided not to start playing until after the 20 minute mark – which again led to disastrous results.
A deflected free kick gave Milan the perfect start, followed by a stunning individual goal by Stephan El Shawaary who tore the unconvincing Zenit defence apart. But unlike in Malaga, Zenit showed real character.
Inspired by star front man Hulk, the Russians started motoring and already by the 49th minute, the score was 2-2. But having invested so much energy in drawing level, the Russians were hit by a killer blow. A low cross was unfortunately turned into his own net by Tomas Hubocan 15 minutes from time, and this time, there was nothing left in the Zenit tank to once again draw level.
Another defeat but the manner of defeat was pleasing none the less, and Zenit had finally showed the character that has made them the most successful club in Russia and in Europe in the past few years.
Like Zenit, matchday two also was the first chance for Spartak to show what they are made of in front of their own home support, but unlike Zenit who had illustrious visitors, Spartak were facing what on paper was the easiest match of the whole group stage for them. Scottish champions Celtic were the visitors, a team that in truth just cannot play away from home in Europe. In fact, Celtic not only barely ever win on the road, they barely ever score.
Following on from their courageous display in Spain against Barcelona, much was expected, and you wouldn’t have found many betting against a home win. But Celtic decided not to read the script.
After only 12 minutes Hoops striker Gary Hooper neatly tucked home finishing off a fast counterattack, and Spartak were left in a position that they never expected. But just before half time Emannuel Emenike hauled the Moscow giants level, and just after the break he pounced on a goalkeeping error to make the scoreline more like what everyone expected.
But then came the turning point. Young Spartak defender Juan Isaurralde found himself taking an early walk back to the changing rooms after committing a foul as the last man on 62 minutes, and within 9 minutes Celtic had drawn level, Dmitry Kombarov inadvertently deflecting the ball in his own goal after goalkeeper Sergey Pesyakov had saved a low shot from talented Scottish winger James Forrest.
A draw would be bad enough for Spartak, but it got even worse. On the stroke of full time Greek striker Giorgos Samaras condemned Spartak to a shock defeat with a pinpoint header to leave the hosts shell-shocked, and for the second time in two matches blowing a lead completely when leading in the final 20 minutes.
On we go to matchday three then, and for both clubs, it was do or die time. It’s unheard of for any club to come back from three consecutive defeats to progress further, but for Zenit and Spartak, after two consecutive defeats this was their last chance to leave themselves with any chances in the Champions League this time year.
For Zenit, on paper the easiest match of their group awaited. Belgian champions Anderlecht were the visitors to Saint Petersburg, a team that hasn’t won a game in the Champions League for 7 years, and so far this season hasn’t even managed to score a goal.
However unlike their hosts, they had a point to their name – a hard fought draw in Milan – and all the pressure was on Zenit to finally gain their first points of this campaign and everyone in the club, the staff, players and supporters understood, that nothing else than a victory would do.
But Zenit are slow starters as we have already seen, and it was no different here. Anderlecht seized the initiative surprisingly, and didn’t allow Zenit to get their act together at all. Ex Liverpool striker Milan Jovanovic spurned the best chance for the Belgians, firing wide when one on one with Vyacheslav Malafeev, but in addition to that chance Anderlecht played better football and looked to be hungrier for the 3 points.
Stern words from coach Luciano Spalletti were needed at the break if Zenit’s Champions League dreams weren’t to be dashed, and stern words there must have been, as in the second half Zenit finally upped the pace.
Despite that, Anderlecht didn’t look any worse than their hosts, but on 70 minutes, came the key moment. Jovanovic pulled back Zenit full back Alexander Anyukov in the penalty area following a quick free kick to give Alexander Kerzhakov the opportunity to give Zenit their so badly needed goal, which he was never going to let pass him by.
Anderlecht pressed hard for what would have been a deserved leveller but Zenit managed to hold out for an invaluable victory. Following Malaga’s home win against Milan, Zenit are now only one point separates the Italians and Zenit, with another 3 matches to play. Things have gone from being decidedly bleak, to quite rosy.
For Spartak, they had already had their supposedly easiest match of the group stage, and blown their big opportunity. Now for the Muscovites was a key double header against Benfica – 2 games which will decide Spartak’s fate in the competition.
With the first game in Moscow the Russians had the perfect opportunity to make amends in front of their fans following the shocking result against Celtic, but it was never going to be easy – especially if you pay attention to the statistic that in the past 15 Champions League home matches for Spartak, they have one just one of these games. With the odds were stacked against them, they soon proved their determination to show everyone what they are made of.
From the off Spartak set a high tempo to the game and got an early reward, Rafael Carioca deftly prodding the ball home past Benfica goalkeeper Artur after a neat move. Spartak showed no sign of stopping there, and it could have so easily been 2-0 when Ari hooked the ball onto the underside of the bar when it seemed easier to score. And as the old cliché goes if you don’t score your own chances, your opponents will score instead. Benfica forward Lima glanced in a cross from the right hand side to restore parity from what was Benfica’s first meaningful attack.
The onus was then out right back onto the hosts to regain their composure and that’s just what they did, immediately seizing back the initiative and being rewarded for it – when Brazilian striker Ari pressurized Benfica defender Jardel to divert the ball into his own net.
In the second half as you would expect, Spartak sat back deeper and deeper as it was Benfica’s turn to seize the initiative but they failed to put the home defence under any real pressure, meaning than just as Zenit managed to do a day later, Spartak had dragged themselves kicking and screaming back into contention in their group – trailing second placed Celtic by just a solitary point.
The first half of the group stage has been intriguing enough, but it is only going to get more and more intriguing as we move on into the second half. Almost strangely, both Zenit and Spartak find themselves in exactly the same position – trailing the second spot in their groups by just one point, and both having just 3 points to their names.
You would think, that for progression into the knockout stages, another 6 points at least will be needed for both – but if Zenit and Spartak both manage to carry through the momentum created on matchday three, then anything is possible.
Written by Shaun Nicolaides
Follow him on Twitter @zenitfan93
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