Everything you Need To Know About: Zenit St Petersburg

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

After a relatively fallow few years in the transfer market, Zenit are back in business just in time to christen their spectacular new home at the Krestovsky Arena. Five Argentinians and five Rostov players have joined over the summer under new boss Roberto Mancini as a total of 27 players passed through the revolving doors in St Petersburg, and after an unbeaten domestic record so far there are very few who will bet against them winning silverware next summer.

They may have made heavy work of getting past Utrecht in the Europa League qualifiers, having lost the second leg of the previous round to unheralded Bnei Yehuda at home, but they have passed the scare of missing out on continental action. Mancini has shown himself to be adept at assessing his players’ strengths and weaknesses, as well as ruling with an iron fist with underperforming players.

History

In the minds of many European fans the history of Zenit began, in essence, just a decade ago with their historic UEFA Cup win. The arrival of Gazprom’s multi-billion rouble investment secured their permanent place at the top table of Russian football, and has seen the likes of Hulk, Axel Witsel and Ezequiel Garay represent the blue-white-sky blue shirts.

This would be to do a great disservice to the club however. Granted, they may have only won one national title – the Soviet Top League in 1984 – and two Soviet Cups  in their first 80 years of existence, but the first recorded football match in what is now Russia took place in the city at the end of the 19th century. The infamous siege game of 1942, a show of defiance at being unbowed by advancing Nazi armies, took place in Leningrad, so the sense of football as a source of pride is powerful in this part of the world.

Manager

Roberto Mancini arrived to take over the reigns from Mircea Lucescu following the vastly-experienced Romanian’s largely disastrous season in charge. The Italian has already stamped his identity on the squad, shifting out a fair portion his unwanted playing staff and reinvigorating his new squad into a machine, most notably breathing new life into the stuttering career of RFPL top goalscorer Aleksandr Kokorin.

His reputation to being outspoken and belligerent when dealing with club management has not caused friction so far – mostly because results have been so solid. The contrast with the dour, baseless complaining of predecessor Mircea Lucescu is stark, but the European campaign is where he will truly be judged.

Key Players

Aleksandr Kokorin – The former prodigy had been roundly written off by most observers after a perceived drop in performances over some considerable time. Trusted with leading the line as opposed to being shunted out wide to accommodate the one-dimensional skill set of Artem Dzyuba, however, and he has blossomed. This is already his third-highest goals tally in the league, with three more crucial strikes coming in the Europa League.

Daler Kuzyaev – For all the razzmatazz surrounding the Argentine legion arriving over the summer, it has been the unremarkable €4 million signing that has anchored the midfield with precise passing and an unerring eye for goal.

Leandro Paredes – A brief flirtation with Paredes as an attacking point to Zenit’s midfield shows the faith in his creativity, despite being a predominantly defensive-minded midfielder. Like Kuzyaev he has a wonderful range of abilities that allow him to control proceedings from deep or further up the pitch.

European Record

Zenit have performed underwhelmingly in Europe in recent years, at least in comparison to their solitary continental title back in 2008 when they beat Rangers in the UEFA Cup final. Their most significant progress through a European competition was reaching the quarter-finals of the Europa League three seasons ago, with the knockout rounds proving notoriously difficult to negotiate. The classic post-winter break blues seem to strike Zenit harder than most Russian clubs; last season, after five wins from six saw the top the group, they once against flopped in the spring against Anderlecht.

Strongest Lineup

Andrey Lunev – Igor Smolnikov, Branislav Ivanović, Emmanuel Mammana, Domenico Criscito – Leandro Paredes, Daler Kuzyaev – Oleg Shatov, Sebastian Driussi, Emiliano Rigoni – Aleksandr Kokorin

Author: Andrew Flint

I moved out to Russia in 2010 to teach English because it sounded like fun, then I met and fell in love with FC Tyumen (and my wife!) and decided to stay. Surprisingly, I turned out to be the only English person remotely interested in a Siberian third-tier club, but then who wouldn’t fall for a grizzly Georgian midget, a flying Brazilian and Tyumen’s 93rd most influential figure…

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