Europa League Preview: Real Sociedad – Zenit St. Petersburg

Real Sociedad v Zenit St. Petersburg – Thursday, 7 December 20:05 GMT – Estadio de Anoeta, San Sebastián.

Zenit St. Petersburg have already qualified for the Europa League knockout stages, joining both Spartak and CSKA in the next round. However, they now must travel to Spain in a direct shootout with Real Sociedad for first place.

This is the most straight-forward of all games involving Russian sides in terms of permutations; Zenit simply must not lose in order to be seeded for the knockout stages.


Tactical Analysis

Although the game away to Akhmat Grozny in Chechnya at the weekend is arguably more vital as Zenit desperately need to retain second place before regrouping in the Winter Break, attaining that all-important seeding is mandatory. As such, the pressure is well and truly heaped upon Roberto Mancini, who has been widely criticised for not getting the best out of a star-studded squad assembled by spending more than €50m in the summer.

This game is not necessarily a must-win, but it is irrevocably a must-not-lose, as a draw away at the Anoeta is simply enough to guarantee the coveted top spot in the group. However, I do not think Mancini should approach the game in a defensive manner, but play as many of his attacking foreign legion as possible in the warmer Basque weather. Although still cold, it would be noticeably warmer than in St. Petersburg this time of year and some of his misfiring stars such as Mátias Kranevitter and Sebastián Driussi could be given a chance to find some game time and morale boosting form ahead of the long and arduous four-month break.

If Mancini continues to stutter domestically in the Spring, the Europa League could prove to be his saving grace as it has been in the autumn. His side currently sit unbeaten at the top of the group with four wins from five games, including mauling Vardar 5-0 and Sociedad 3-1. As well as having the top scorer in the whole competition in Emiliano Rigoni, Aleksandr Kokorin is joint-second in the standings and Zenit as a unit have created more goal scoring opportunities, carried out more completed passes and had more possession than any other side in the tournament – including favourites Arsenal, Milan and Lazio. It could well be either his saving grace or a springboard to domestic success after a long break containing vacations, intensive warm-weather training camps and tactical work.

Zenit are unique in their attacking approach, both to Russia and Mancini’s managerial history. He historically prefers teams dominated by powerful central midfielders and diminutive wingers cutting inside, with their play dominated in the middle third. Mancini has developed and tweaked his style in order to get the best out of Zenit’s plethora of talented inside forwards. Kokorin, Rigoni, Driussi, Oleg Shatov and Dmitri Poloz when utilised out-wide all prefer to play on the opposite wing to their stronger foot, in order to drift into the half-spaces and support the central striker – usually Kokorin, sometimes 6’5 giant Artem Dzyuba – and finish with aplomb. In fact, all are accomplished finishers from either afar (Shatov), near (Kokorin, Poloz) or both (Rigoni and Driussi) and are the central threat to Zenit’s attacks. It was a very efficient style early on as the Blue-White-Sky Blues swatted aside every opponent, but, with certain figures’ form dropping off a cliff and others perennially injured, they have struggled of late. Expect much of the same on Thursday night, most likely with Dzyuba central.

Although Mancini did change his system to suit his wingers, Zenit’s central midfield has suffered as a result, especially in the six role. Leandro Paredes is left far too isolated by the Italian due to his necessity to overload the wings and thus Paredes is often forced into the role of spectator, dropping deep between the central defenders. Paredes still performs brilliantly in this role, but it is a cruel limitation of his fantastic attacking ability, pace and raw stamina. In fact, Paredes is one of Mancini’s most dynamic midfielders and would perform fantastically well in tandem with the equally talented Daler Kuzyaev either side of a true number six. Aleksandr Erokhin just doesn’t have the ability to play such a role at such a level, and Kranevitter is often left out due to the ludicrously stringent foreigner rules in Russia. As a result, he struggles for regular game time and match fitness and Erokhin is limited to the role of a ball-winning midfielder with Paredes left criminally deep.

Mancini will be free to play both Argentinians in tandem in midfield, and should he do so, expect Zenit to pull off the result they need.


Team News

Although Roberto Mancini is undoubtedly under pressure, he does not have the same league restrictions to stsrt a minimum of five Russian players. This has resulted in recent line-ups of up to just three Russians involved. Zenit face Akhmat Grozny at the weekend, a typical bogey team for the Blue-White-Sky Blues, so, despite the importance of a seeding, the Italian wI’ll shake it up a bit.

Aleksandr Anyukov has been a long-term injury miss due to mysterious problems with fatigue. Oleg Shatov is a doubt for the game with his own injury but could return. One man who is likely to recover in time is Andrei Lunev, who has been missing after picking up concussion after a collision in the Russia – Spain match.

Yuri Lodygin will likely drop out in his stead, meanwhile, Artem Dzyuba will be looking to start after being an unused sub in recent weeks. As will Sebastián Driussi, whose form has imploded recently.


Key Players

Domenico Criscito – Recently voted Zenit’s player of the month for November, the club captain has been his usually dependable self and even added a goal and assist during the month, The Italian has performed excellently whether playing in the middle of defence or on the left – his preferred position. His experience will be vital in stopping a talented Sociedad side likely to overload the right flank with Sergio Canales, Xabi Prieto and Álvaro Odriozola, three very attacking and creative talents.

Leandro Paredes Paredes has been a revelation for Zenit this season, despite even being utilised wrongly by Mancini. In spite of this, he is still Zenit’s most accomplished performer this season, and starred in our most recent Team of the Week after a brilliant performance against Ural with over 92% passing accuracy. Due to the lack of a foreigner limit, he will be allowed into a more advanced position with Kranevitter sitting in the six role – a necessity to combat the threat of Sociedad’s very technically gifted midfield of Asier Illarramendi, David Zurutza and Prieto.

Emiliano Rigoni – Although aided by a hat trick in Zenit’s 3-1 victory over Rosenborg in St. Petersburg, he is the deserved top scorer in the whole tournament with six goals. Although starting slowly in Russia, his recent performances have been electric as he finally adjusts to life in the nation’s former capital. His most recent goal against FK Vardar typifies his performances; a beautifully placed, left-footed effort from the edge of the box after cutting into the right half-space. He has, in fact, scored numerous different types of goals for Zenit this season as he can finish with aplomb, and is not just proving his early detractors wrong, but thriving under their diatribe.


Predicted Line-up

4-3-3: Andrei Lunev – Igor Smolnikov, Emmanuel Mammana, Miha Mevlja, Domenico Criscito – Daler Kuzyaev, Mátias Kranevitter, Leandro Paredes – Sebastián Driussi, Artem Dzyuba, Emiliano Rigoni.


Match Prediction

Real Sociedad may have been beaten 3-1 by a Rigoni-inspired Zenit in the return fixture, but they are far from pushovers. Erreala play some excellent football and in Canales and Prieto, have two of the top creators in the whole Europa League in their team – in fact, they have registered the most assists in the competition at five and four respectively.

In ex-Southampton striker Juanmi Jiménez, the Basque have a player capable of finding a goal from anywhere, having scored three in five already in the competition this season. Under Eusebio Sacristán, who guided the club back into Europa after David Moyes’ disastrous spell, they play very effective and stylish football, and it will make for a promising, but close encounter.

Real Sociedad 1 – 1 Zenit St. Petersburg

Author: James Nickels

Born and raised in South Shields, the direct mid-point between Sunderland and Newcastle in North-East England during an era of sustained success and European football for the Magpies, while the Black Cats floundered in the lower divisions, so naturally I decided to support Sunderland. I’ve developed an interest in Russian football over the last decade or so, but it piqued while studying for my Masters’ Degree in Russian and Soviet History, and I’ve been hooked by Spartak Moscow ever since. Considers Eduard Streltsov the best of his generation, and a fond proponent of his repatriation.

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