Europa League Preview: Zenit St. Petersburg – Real Sociedad

The Zenit Arena on Krestosky Island looking resplendent at night with Sergei Kirov Statue overlooking it. Photo: James Nickels/RFN

Thursday sees Russian Premier League leaders Zenit St. Petersburg host La Liga outfit Real Sociedad in their second match of the Europa League group stage, with both sides coming into this on the back of heavy victories in match day one. While Zenit are experiencing some strong domestic form of late (unbeaten this season, on the back of 6 successive clean sheets) Sociedad have lost their last three La Liga matches since their opening Europa League victory.

Roberto Mancini was quick however to highlight the Spanish side’s threat, predicting the midweek encounter to be one of Zenit’s toughest of the season, a match that’ll probably determine the first most likely side to make it to the knockout phases even at this early stage.

Tactical Analysis

Zenit’s strength, this season more so than any other has been their squad depth, and their capacity to change it up when they are in need of a freshen up. Early season lightning rod Sebastian Druissi has recently played a lower key role, replaced by the previously shunned Artyom Dzyuba. Similarly out wide, an injury to Oleg Shatov has opened the door to Dmitry Poloz, who has grasped the chance perfectly, scoring twice in the last week.

After their impressive victory away in Krasnodar at the weekend, Mancini will likely roll out the same 4-3-3 formation that performed so well against The Bulls. The question mark will instead be on which personnel fills in which slots, with options a plenty in almost every position. Leandro Paredes’ European experience will likely be called upon at some point, after only featuring off the bench at the weekend, while Matias Kranvitter’s playing days in Spain will no doubt be harnessed to best cope with the undoubted qualities of their opposition.

Team News

Mancini confirmed in his pre-match conference on Wednesday that the same squad that travelled to Krasnodar will again be in contention in Europe. That likely rules out Oleg Shatov for a further match day, with Mancini expressing his hope that the Russian wide man could play a part against Shatov’s former employers Anzhi this coming Sunday.

That leaves an impressive attacking squad full of options, a depth that Mancini may look to fully utilise in amongst an intensive period of seven games in 22 days.

Key Players

Artyom Dzyuba – Back in the reckoning after seemingly being on his way out of the Krestovsky, Dzyuba’s significance back in the Zenit fold illustrates a player with determination to adapt his game in a potentially career defining season. The differences between himself and Druissi are stark, but the fact Mancini has turned to him as a physical focal point ahead of what some predict as a world class talent in the making, has undoubtedly altered the way Zenit set up.

Dmitry Poloz – With Shatov almost certainly ruled out, Dmitry Poloz will relish the chance to record a third goal in as many matches, after notching against Dynamo St. Petersburg in last mid-week’s cup derby alongside Zenit’s weekend win in Krasnodar. Primed with a notable European campaign with Rostov in last year’s Champions League and given his impressive start with Sbornaya, Poloz’s start for Zenit can’t come as any real surprise, who will continually prove a threat from out wide this coming week.

Emanuel Mammana – It would be criminal to highlight three players from this current Zenit squad, without mentioning one of their Argentine imports, a cohort in which centre back Emanuel Mammana has arguably stood out amongst. Of the five drafted in over the summer, Mammana’s purpose was most tellingly needed; a centre back with the qualities and experience needed to lessen the reliance on Portuguese calamitous Luis Neto to prove a perfect dovetail for the ageing Branislav Ivanovic. The former Lyon man has settled after a nervy opener to quickly become a reliable fixture in a side that continues to record back-to-back clean sheets.

Predicted Line-Up

(4-3-3): Andrey Lunyov; Igor Smolnikov, Branislav Ivanovic, Emanuel Mammana, Domenico Criscito; Leandro Paredes, Matias Kranevitter, Daler Kuzyayev; Aleksandr Kokorin, Artyom Dzyuba, Dmitry Poloz.

Match Prediction

This match is rightly billed as the king maker in Group L, and even at this early stage, three points for either side should give them clear breathing space to plan ahead for European football after Christmas. While discrepancies in form are stark, Real Sociedad can point to tough home fixtures against reigning European champions Real Madrid and Valencia that have dented their confidence of late, and will offer a typical threat as was predicted when the schedule was first drawn.

With that however, and the much fabled lengthy trip East, Sociedad will probably accept a point away at the Krestovsky, fancying their chances to top the group when the same two meet up in Game Week 6. This will surely play into the hands of Zenit, and their already blossoming defensive record, knowing a lead through any of their number of attacking options with a place to fight for, will be well equipped to be kept for the duration. That being the prediction of play, a 1 or 2 goal deficit in front of a sellout Krestovsky looks fanciable.

Zenit St. Petersburg 2-0 Real Sociedad

Author: Martin Lowe

Russian and Asian football follower and blogger.

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