Europa League Preview: Zenit St. Petersburg – FK Vardar Skopje

For Zenit, it is simple. They have already qualified for the group stages, however, despite an impressive 3-1 victory over Real Sociedad in the second match day, Erreala sit just a point behind Zenit with a superior goal difference. it will all come down to the final game between the two in December at the Anoeta Stadium in  San Sebastián to discover who will top the group. A difficult away game in the Basque Country, therefore a victory here will be vital.

Macedonian minnows Vardar have lost all four group games going into the match tonight, scoring just once and conceding 17 goals in the process. The last time the teams met in Skopje – the only time they have in fact – Zenit ran out comfortable 5-0 winners. In fact, In Europe Vardar have lost eight of their last ten, have been behind at both half-time and full-time in their last four, conceding 4.25 goals per game. Therefore, anything other than a convincing win, and a sign of intent to their Basque rivals would be deemed a failure.


Tactical Analysis

Despite the possible inclusion of Artem Dzyuba, under Mancini’s system, he does not play as a target man, but rather a focal point of an accomplished, passing game. Zenit’s full-backs push very high and the central defenders split, all of which are very able on the ball. Either Leandro Paredes or Matías Kranevitter (depending on who plays in the deepest central midfield role) then constantly moves off the ball, coming short and recycling it either short or long to a dynamic front five. The tactics and style slightly shift or change depending upon who is playing, but more often than not it is a narrow approach with both wingers more akin to inside forwards and the two wide central midfielders playing a key box-to-box role. Two of Kokorin, Rigoni, Driussi or Shatov play wide and always support the central striker (either Kokorin or Dzyuba), and as such the attacking intent of Bransilav Ivanovic or Igor Smolnikov on the right is vital to providing width in attacking areas.

I don’t expect Vardar to pose much of an attcking threat, therefore expect to see this formation utilised very high and camped in the Macedon’s own half.


Team News

Sebastian Driussi missed the Tosno game through injury, but Roberto Mancini has claimed he will be back for the game tonight, whether he starts or not is another question. Andrei Lunev, who suffered concussion sustained off a heavy collision with Spanish striker Rodrigo may be back for the Spartak game at the weekend, but will definitely miss out tonight, expect Yuri Lodygin to continue to deputise. Viktor Faizulin continues to miss out through a long-term knee injury.

Mancini has also confirmed he will be making numerous changes ahead of the Spartak game but kept who close to his chest. I expect three changes here, probably with Miha Mevlja, Yuri Zhirkov, and Artem Dzyuba coming in for Igor Smolnikov, Emmanuel Mammana and Oleg Shatov.


Key Players

Aleksandr Kokorin – Kokorin started the season on fire, but during the club’s winless streak in the league (and just one win in six in all competitions), Kokorin only scored once. However, that goal at Rosenborg followed up by a goal in the 5-0 demolition of Tosno may signal an end to both his and Zenit’s November curse. The whole side has a great chance of really getting some confidence and goals back again tonight against a side they already dispatched 5-0 away from home.

Emiliano Rigoni – Saved by Mancini for the Europa League often this season, he has produced some stellar performances including a hat-trick at home to Rosenborg. This won him over too much of the Zenit support, who previously had seen very little of the dynamic winger. Rigoni has a mean direct free-kick, and all round is a clinical player with the ball at foot in front of goal. For a winger, he has an excellent scoring record with 33 goals in 135 games, a goal every four games. As such, he isn’t the best crosser nor passer, but with his set-piece ability, thunderous long-shot and clinical finishing, two-footed Rigoni will be a huge threat to Vardar.

Leandro Paredes – Despite the wealth of attacking threat and steely defence, Paredes has been Zenit’s best player so far this season. Although Kuzyaev is a more impressive summer purchase due to the cost and shock of the move, the Argentinian runs the pitch for Zenit. Everything goes through him, and more than likely he’s successful. Likewise a strong set-piece and penalty taker, Paredes has it all and is just 23. He distributes the ball with aplomb, both long and short, to a players feet or head, and can accurately pinpoint a through ball like no other in Russia. He’s also a fine tackler and intimidating opponent. He may be rested, but if he plays, he’s always a key player.


Predicted Lineups

4-3-3: Yuri Lodygin – Branislav Ivanović, Miha Mevlja, Domenico Criscito,  Yuri Zhirkov – Matías Kranevitter, Leandro Paredes, Daler Kuzyaev – Aleksandr Kokorin, Artem Dzyuba, Emiliano Rigoni



A victory tonight secures qualification and coupled with anything but a loss against Sociedad on the next matchday, Zenit will win their group and avoid the dreaded prospect of facing one of the UCL third-placed teams who drop down into the competition.

Zenit have never lost at home since the UEFA Cup was morphed into the Europa League. Furthermore, Vardar are the only side left in the whole of the competition to have not picked up a single point. After their impressive win against Fenerbahce in the playoffs, Vardar became the first Macedonian club ever to qualify for the group stage of a European competition and deserve credit, but are merely out of their depth. Thus, on the back of a dominant, impressive and morale-boosting 5-0 demolition of Tosno in the northern derby last weekend, I’d expect a similar scoreline tonight. Aleksandr Kokorin returned t scoring ways against Tosno, and with five goals in the competition thus far is the joint top scorer, so expect him to score again tonight. Who joins him on top of the scorer’s list? Teammate Emiliano Rigoni.

Zenit St. Petersburg 4-0 Vardar Skopje

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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