Europa League Preview: Zenit Saint Petersburg – FC Utrecht

An aerial view of Zenit’s home, the Stadium Saint Petersburg. Source: Zenit.ru

First Playoff Round, Second Leg: Can Mancini’s Stars Overturn the Deficit?

Zenit will go into the Second Leg of their Europa League tie with Utrecht trailing, after a disappointing performance last week in Holland. Zakaria Labyad’s second half header was well deserved for the home side, who troubled Zenit throughout. If Zenit does lose the tie, it will be a disaster for the Saint Petersburg side, after spending €81.3 on transfers thus far this window, including the signing of Emiliano Rigoni, announced just yesterday. Their Argentinian invasion has thus far paid off domestically, but Mancini’s side has flattered to deceive thus far in Europe, losing already to Israeli minnows Bnei Yehuda and in the aforementioned first leg to Utrecht. For a side with hopes and aspirations of winning the Europea League this year, this start is simply not good enough. Yet, for now, getting through to the Group Stages is all that matters, and that is more than achievable for the Blue-White-Sky Blues.

Tactical Analysis

Roberto Mancini made only three changes from the 4-0 dismantling of Akhmat for the Utrecht game. It was not a case of rotation policy not paying off, but his players misfiring. Two of these changes, however, were key. He moved Leandro Paredes up into Daler Kuzyaev’s advanced central midfield role, replacing the latter with Matías Kranevitter, who played in the deepest of the three. Up top, he split up the dynamic trio of Shatov-Kokorin-Driussi by replacing the former with Yuri Zhirkov, usually a left-back. Although these players are still good enough to beat an inferior Utrecht side, moving Paredes up the pitch and splitting up the front three with a defender was unwise. In this leg, Mancini will not take the affair as lightly, and will likely put out as strong a team as possible under pressure from those higher up the Zenit and Gazprom chain of command.

Expect Kuzyaev’s return into the midfield to be key, as his keen work-rate, eye for goal and energy levels perfectly supplement Paredes’ passing range and vision and Aleksandr Erokhin’s physicality and keen footballing mind. Up top, Mancini will definitely call upon Sebastián Driussi and Kokorin for the game, their blossoming partnership shows no signs of slowing down, with the pair directly scoring or assisting the other for four goals thus far this season. They’ll line-up in Mancini’s usual 4-3-3, and will aim at dominating the ball through Paredes, relying on Driussi and either Oleg Shatov or Dmitri Poloz to cut-in and provide support to Kokorin.

Team News

Zenit will go into the game with a clean bill of health but may miss new signing Emiliano Rigoni, who only signed for the club yesterday on a four-year contract from Club Atlético Independiente. In the last match, Roberto Mancini complained of tiredness and the small turnaround between the Akhmat match (Sunday evening) and the first leg (Tuesday). Despite this, and the impressive squad at his hand, Mancini will little afford to rotate his squad, with Gazprom demanding nothing but qualification. As such, expect Kuzyaev to return from the second leg, along with Denis Terentyev as Igor Smolnikov struggled somewhat defensively against Utrecht’s high pressing game. Furthermore, either Oleg Shatov or Dmitri Poloz will probably come in for Zhirkov in attack, and we may see Christian Noboa starting for the first time. His creativity, set piece threat, and experience will be useful in a somewhat youthful midfield.

Key Players

Aleksandr Kokorin

Who else? The Russian striker has been shown great faith by Mancini with his starting berth up front, in his favoured position, ahead of Artyom Dzyuba, their previous goalscoring machine. But the often controversial but equally enigmatic striker has gone above and beyond repaying the Italian’s faith. Kokorin has registered an emphatic seven goals and two assists in just ten games this season and is not just living up to his old potential but surpassing it. For years, at Dinamo, Anzhi, and Zenit he has underperformed and had been forced to play out wide, but now, finally, he is the fulcrum and spear of an attack just as talented as he is. I would expect him to continue his great form this evening.

Daler Kuzyaev

Kuzyaev was relatively unknown outside of Grozny before this past summer, signed for just €4m from Akhmat. Though initially, many questioned his signing for such a high reported fee, as even some Russian experts had seen very little of him in the flesh. Fast-forward a few months, however, and he is not just overachieving, but a central cog to who look set to away with the title domestically. Kuzyaev is a skillful footballer with a strong range of passing, high energy and stamina levels with a wicked long-range shot. In fact, two of the three goals he has scored for Zenit so far are spectacular, in the opening game of the season against SKA Khabarovsk and against Spartak Moscow.

Andrey Lunev

Some fans have castigated Lunev for being at fault last weekend for Labyad’s goal. I would not be in such a rush to blame a goalkeeper who has performed excellently since moving late last year from FC Ufa. He made numerous excellent saves against Utrecht, including one particularly impressive double-save in the first half to keep the Petersburger’s in the game. Lunev will have to be on top form against tonight in order to keep Utrecht out, who will be more than happy to simply sit back and counter.

Predicted Lineup

4-3-3: Lunev – Criscito, Mammana, Ivanović, Terentyev – Kuzyaev, Paredes, Noboa – Shatov, Kokorin, Driussi

Prediction

Those in power at Gazprom’s halls are demanding European success for Zenit, and the size (and cost) of their transformation reflects this. However, if Roberto Mancini cannot deliver, it will spark disaster for the Saint Petersburg side. However, at home with the game sold out and the Stadium Saint Petersburg set to be rocking, I’d expect Zenit to be able to make it to the Group Stages.

3-1

 

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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