Great expectations don’t always materialise into great results. In sport this happens time and time again, it’s just a part of life, but the Russian collapse in this year’s Champions League has come somewhat as a shock that no one ever really imagined would happen.
After last season’s overwhelming success of both Russian representatives in the group stage progressing through to the knockout stages, perhaps we were being a bit greedy when hoping that this year that feat would repeat itself. But instead, we have been brought back down to reality with a bang. Zenit Saint Petersburg, who made the last 16 last season, were hoping to do even better that this time around, especially following the well documented arrivals of superstars Hulk and Axel Witsel.
Spartak Moscow on the other hand, who were competing for the first time in two years, had slightly more modest expectations, but they were still expected to at least make a serious challenge for a last 16 berth. But by the time the final matchday was upon us, all hope had already been brutally extinguished, for both clubs.
Inside scandals and a distinct lack of ability to defend cost both Zenit and Spartak, although on the last matchday Zenit at least managed to save the pride of Russian football, grabbing a spot in the somewhat controversial Europa League with an impressive 1-0 win away to European powerhouses AC Milan.
Spartak however, disgraced themselves with losing 5 of their 6 games, with just about all of their defeats coming about as a result of having one of the worst defensive lines that the Champions League has seen in recent times. And yet after the first half of the group stage, hope was still intact for both sides.
Zenit’s start to the group stage went just about as bad as it could have done. A humbling 3-0 defeat away to Spanish debutants Malaga, followed by a painful and largely unfair 3-2 home to defeat to Milan, Zenit had made life just about as hard as it could have been for themselves. But they finally got on the board with a 1-0 home win against Belgian champions Anderlecht in Saint Petersburg, which left the Russians trailing second placed Milan by just the one point going into matchday 4.
A trip to the Belgian capital Brussels was in store, and on paper, another 3 points were to be expected to be added to Zenit’s tally. Back in the 2010 Europa League Zenit triumphed 3-1 at Anderlecht with minimal fuss, and given the fact the Anderlecht’s team has barely changed since then, no less was expected this time around.
But there was pessimism surrounding the game along with the new-found optimism. The manner of Zenit’s 1-0 victory in Russia wasn’t exactly impressive, with Anderlecht outplaying their hosts for the majority of the game and only losing to an Alexander Kerzhakov penalty 20 minutes from time.
But Zenit got lucky, and they knew it, the only thing that Anderlecht lacked in their game was a goal, which was understandable given that their main sniper Dieudonné Mbokani was absent due to injury. But for this game he was declared fit to play, and this would prove to be the crucial factor. Zenit didn’t start too badly, with Sergey Semak and Zenit’s own Belgian Nicolas Lombaerts going close, but then on 17 minutes, the reigning Russian champions received an unwelcoming shock.
A Lombaerts slip in defence let in Mbokani who coolly chipped the ball over an advancing Vyacheslav Malafeev in the Zenit goal and suddenly all the pressure was on the Russians. Pressure that they just couldn’t cope with, and for the whole remaining 73 minutes not one decent scoring opportunity was created, and all the newfound hope that had been created two weeks ago in Saint Petersburg had been meekly surrendered, with not so much as a whimper.
The task that was facing Spartak was pretty daunting as well however. Just like their compatriots Zenit, Spartak hadn’t had the most fun of starts. There was no shame in bravely going down 3-2 to Barcelona in the Nou Camp, in a performance which caught the eye of many European fans, but the defeat on matchday 2 was plain embarrassing. P
laying against Scottish champions Celtic in Moscow, a club which never wins on the road in Europe, only a victory was expected.
After a rough start with saw the visitors take a shock lead, Spartak responded well to go 2-1 up but still contrived to throw away the game, going down 3-2, and their Champions League was fast going down the drain. However an impressive 2-1 home victory against Benfica had fast resurrected ambitions, but if those ambitions were going to turn into reality, a good result away to the Portuguese outfit was a must.
Just like Zenit did in Belgium, Spartak started off well, Diniyar Bilyaletdinov having a close range effort repelled by Benfica stopper Artur, and the Russians giving away little in defence. But come the last 45 minutes, everything took a turn for the worst. An inspired half time substitution by Benfica coach Jorge Jesus proved to be the crucial factor, sending on proven goal getter Oscar Cardozo, and within 10 minutes, he had already found the back of the net.
Spartak failed to muster a response and it was 2-0 and game over on 69 minutes, Cardozo nodding home following static Russian defending. To make Spartak’s night even worse, defender Nicolas Pareja got his marching orders, but from the ensuing penalty, the Russians enjoyed their best moment of the night, goalkeeper Artem Rebrov preventing Cardozo from grabbing himself a hat trick, but it was no consolation.
With just 3 points from 4 games, Zenit’s last chance saloon was waiting for them. If the Russians were going to repeat last year’s achievement of booking their place in the last 16, they had no other option than to win their two remaining matches. Something which is easier said than done, considering those games were against a Malaga side that so far had only conceded just the one goal and without any defeats, and against the 7 times European champions, AC Milan.
Malaga had humiliated Zenit with a thumping 3-0 victory in Spain, but arrived in Saint Petersburg with a slightly different mindset. Having already amassed an impressive 10 points after the first 4 games, the Spaniards were already assured their place amongst Europe’s best 16 clubs, and could afford to relax somewhat. And that showed, with coach Manuel Pellegrini opting to leave main men Javier Saviola and Joaquín in Spain.
The opportunity was waiting for Zenit with open arms, but it was an opportunity that was thrown away with the first 10 minutes. Malaga’s makeshift frontline was motivated to impress their boss and they showed their mettle, Zenit’s rather stilted defence being horribly exposed and Diego Buonanotte pounced. And just 60 seconds later, Zenit’s somewhat flimsy chances of qualifying for the knockout stage had been well and truly extinguished. Vyacheslav Malafeev carelessly gave the ball away to Roque Santa Cruz, who squared to Sebo to fire home and the game was finished before it had even started.
Zenit rallied however and showed the character of true champions, and even managed to rescue a point, which would prove important in the final standings. Danny scored an exquisite goal just after the break and Viktor Fayzulin fired home after a goalmouth scramble at the death, but it was too little too late.
The situation facing Spartak was just about identical: win the last two games, and a playoff berth would be theirs, anything other than that, and the exit door was staring at them in the face. Zenit’s task of having to beat Malaga and Milan seemed hard enough, but Spartak’s assignment was even worse.
None other than the mighty and seemingly unbeatable Barcelona were rolling into town, followed by a trip to Scotland to face Celtic, and Celtic Park is not a place where any team looks forward to travelling to too much. But first up before that trip, Spartak somehow had to deal with Lionel Messi and company. Their fans did their best to help, a wonderful mosaic card display by the capacity 80,000 crowd certainly got the blood pumping, but that adrenaline was quickly sucked away by Barca’s ruthless attack, which showed no mercy to Spartak’s rather comical defending.
Following a mix up in the defence, marauding right back Dani Alves sent a powerful into the far left hand corner of Spartak’s goalkeeper Andrey Dikan, and from then on, the result was never in doubt. Just as they had done against Benfica, Spartak showed little character and by half time it was 3-0. Lionel Messi capitalized on yet another mistakes to pounce, and a half of magical Barca football was completed when the Argentinan magician deftly rounded Dykan to slot into an empty net. Spartak at least managed to steady the ship for the second half, but the damage was long done.
While the 2-2 draw against Malaga in Saint Petersburg may have ended Zenit’s dreams in the Champions League, the Russians weren’t done with yet. Laid in 3rd place and in a Europa League spot, there was everything to play for against an already qualified Milan. Anderlecht were slumped in bottom spot in the group going into matchday 6, but all they had to do was to better what Zenit could do in Milan, and a European place would be theirs.
But the odds were stacked against the Belgians champions and heavily in favour of Zenit. Anderlecht had the unfortunate task of having to achieve a result against unbeaten Malaga, a side which very rarely give up anything at home, in fact they hadn’t even conceded a goal at home in the competition leading up to this game.
For Zenit, having to play away at the San Siro against Milan may seem somewhat of a daunting task, but not when you look at the statistics. In fact, Milan very rarely win their home games in Europe’s premier competition, and for the last few years, the Milanese have constantly lost their last home match, when their mission of qualifying for the knockout stage has already been achieved.
And it looked as though that would prove to be the case once again this time around, Milan coach Massimiliano Allegri opting to leave the new face of Italian football, striker Stephan El Shaarawy, on the bench along with Robinho. It showed, as Milan from the off were somewhat blunt in the attacking third, but Zenit weren’t much better. The Russians’ usually lightning quick counter attack was strangely subdued, with Axel Witsel, the link between the defence and attack opting to slow the tempo when in possession.
But then a bolt came from out of nowhere. Danny carried a rare Zenit attack into Milan’s penalty area and after a lucky ricochet he managed to find the space to almost pass the ball into the net just out of Milan goalkeeper Christian Abbiati’s reach.
Milan’s response was good, and in the second half, Zenit had to withstand a barrage of attacks. Vyacheslav Malafeev produced a wonder save to deny Giampaolo Pazzini, and when Allegri introduced both Robinho and El Sharrawy, both went inches away from snatching a point. But it wasn’t to be, and despite a largely unimpressive display, Zenit had themselves a credible win against one of Europe’s giants, and with Anderlecht and Malaga playing out a 2-2 draw in Spain, the Russian champions at least have the Europa League for themselves when next spring comes around.
However, unlike Zenit, Spartak had nothing left to play for. After the lesson that Barcelona gave them in Moscow, even the Europa League was out of reach for the Muscovites. Left on just 3 points with Benfica and Celtic both on 7, and Barcelona already qualified the Russian giants had just their pride left to play for. And after heavy consecutive defeats both in Russia and Europe, it was certainly worth at least trying to re-intact their already heavily damaged reputation.
Their opponents, Celtic, weren’t prepared to show any sympathy for Spartak’s woes however. The Scottish outfit were playing their do or die match: having to better Benfica’s result in Spain, and considering that Benfica’s opponents were Barcelona, Celtic’s chances weren’t bad at all.
Despite all that however, Spartak looked the better side in the opening stages. Kim Källström curling a good effort inches wide after a neat interchange with striker Artem Dzyuba, and then their old nemesis came back to bite them hard. A long hopeful ball up towards the Spartak penalty box shouldn’t have caused defender Juan Insaurralde too many problems, but he contrived to present the ball to oncoming striker Gary Hooper who fired an unstoppable drive into Sergey Pesyakov’s right hand corner.
But the Russians surprisingly showed character however, and were level when Brazilian Ari chipped home a delightful lob 6 minutes before half time. If things stayed this way, Celtic would only be heading into the Europa League, as Benfica managed to get a credible 0-0 draw away in Spain, but despite that, Spartak’s hosts showed little urgency.
It was only 10 minutes from time that Celtic started to show any urgency, and it yielded a goal. Czech defender Marek Suchy bundled into striker Giorgos Samaras, and in what was somewhat a debatable decision, referee Felix Brych pointed to the spot. Kris Commons gave Pesyakov no chance, smashing a powerful spot kick in just under the crossbar and with that sent Celtic into the last 16 of the Champions League and shocking the whole of Europe in the process, and at the same time, putting the final nail in the coffin of what has been a thoroughly dismal campaign Spartak campaign.
And so after all the great expectations that came with the new Champions League campaign for Russia’s clubs, all that Russia has to show for it, is one Europa League place, with Zenit barely nabbing the spot in their final fixture.
It isn’t all so gloomy, however. Zenit join fellow Russians Anzhi and Rubin in the Europa League, and both have been amongst the best teams in that competition during the group stage. With players such as Hulk, Igor Denisov, Alexander Anyukov and Axel Witsel, Zenit surely have to be looking at going deep in that competition.
For Spartak, there is nothing left to do other than to somehow fix their situation in Russia, so that they can have another go in the Champions League next year. But I can bet that 99.9% of Russian fans won’t want to see Spartak anywhere near the Champions League anytime soon.
Written by Shaun Nicolaides
Follow him on Twitter @zenitfan93
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