Zenit St. Petersburg: One hell of a season

It has been one hell of a season for Zenit Saint Petersburg. From the major coups of world-class stars Hulk and Axel Witsel, to the Igor Denisov fiasco, the 3 time Russian champions have experienced just about every emotion that there is possible this season. And as the saying goes, all’s well that ends well, finishing in a credible 2nd place in the Russian Premier League and getting another shot at the Champions League for next season.

Not retaining their champions title for the third time in a row has cast a dark shadow over the season though, and while there has been plenty of calls for dramatic changes to take place within the club before the start of the new season, it’s practically impossible.

In just 8 weeks, Zenit will begin their 2013/14 Champions League campaign in the qualifying rounds, as well as beginning the new Russian championship, leaving no time for anything meaningful to be changed. If there is actually any need for major changes to occur though in the first place, is a debatable question in itself.

After claiming the Russian title for the second time in a row last year, as well as getting all the way to the last 16 of the Champions League, expectations going into this season were pretty high. And when the record breaking signings of Hulk and Axel Witsel were announced, these expectations only went through the roof. Looking back in hindsight however, it seems these purchases may have inadvertently scuppered all chances of success.

Not that it has got anything to do with how Hulk and Witsel performed on the field themselves, though.

Zenit old boys Igor Denisov and Alexander Kerzhakov felt highly threatened by the fact that these new kids on the block were going to earn just a bit more money than the ‘real’ Zenit icons themselves, something which in the end has gone on to ruin Zenit’s season completely. Denisov was frozen out of the team for a number of weeks, while Kerzhakov came to his senses a bit sooner. But Zenit’s game suffered seriously as a result, performing poorly in the Champions League with only managing to grab third place in their group, and falling off the pace in the domestic league.

The in team fighting didn’t stop there either. Right at the end of the year, in the game away at Milan in the CL, Hulk appeared to gesture that he had had enough at Zenit after being substituted. The situation was eventually resolved in time for 2013, but it’s hard to remember a season where there were so many problems within just one team.

Hulk and Witsel.... big-money duo catalysts for club in-fighting.

Hulk and Witsel…. big-money duo catalysts for club in-fighting and tensions.

 

Just a couple of weeks ago, in a vital Premier League clash against Rostov on the road, both the outspoken Roman Shirokov and normally amicable playmaker Danny made strong gestures against head coach Luciano Spalletti – both refusing to shake his hand after being substituted. Shirokov went one step further in last week’s home game against Volga, being sent off after making an obscene hand signal to the stands after scoring Zenit’s third goal in a 3-1 victory.

Shirokov’s future with the club is now not surprisingly, in major question. One thing you can’t get away from, is that Zenit would seriously miss him. Shirokov possess the unique ability of being able to play football in such an elegant manner, and trying to replace that sort of player will be a very hard challenge indeed. Fans seem pretty divided about the issue too, some would be only pleased to see the back of him, while some are very well aware of the void that he would leave.

In the case that he does decide to end his controversial stay in Saint Petersburg, Zenit just have to look at their own youth system to find a replacement for him. Pavel Mogilevets, a young 20 year old attacking midfielder made his Zenit debut a few weeks ago against Volga, and has already been audaciously dubbed the ‘Russian Messi’ by some.

That is just what the club has to do much more, make use of their own talented products that they are producing themselves, rather than spending ridiculously large amounts of money on foreigners. Hulk at least has at last started to prove his worth at the back end of the season, scoring a stunning hat trick against Alania in a recent 4-0 win, and almost single-handedly taking Zenit within a whisker of winning a third title on the spin.

Second place isn’t quite first, especially for a club that is used to only winning all the time, but claiming silver medals and fighting off new European force Anzhi for them, is a real success in itself. Anzhi will frustratingly have to deal with only the Europa League again with a team that is well equipped for the Champions League, but Zenit have yet another chance in the tournament in which they are yet to really make their name in. A group stage exit and going on to only reach the last 16 in the Europa League isn’t quite what everyone expected going in to this season, but the dramatic victory against Liverpool in the Europa League last 32 is something which will live long in my memory without a doubt.

What has to be done to improve showings in Europe, is a puzzle that since the UEFA Cup and Super Cup triumphs in 2008, no one has been able to work out. And trying to negotiate the notoriously challenging Champions League qualifying rounds in the summer will be no simple task. Spalletti’s future will most probably depend on what results await in the summer, and there is just no time to change things around now. Eradicate the pure self-greed of certain players, and this season let alone next season, could have been a real success.

But calling a second placed finish a failure is just a sign of the strength that Zenit possess, you would be hard pushed to find any other club that would turn their noses up at earning medals of some colour, and qualifying for the biggest club competition on Earth at the same time. In my book, that’s no failure whatsoever.

 

Written by Shaun Nicolaides

Follow Shaun on Twitter @zenitfan93

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