Zenit Secures the Title – A Look on their Incredible Season

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Last Sunday Zenit St. Petersburg won their fourth Russian Premier League title and their fifth league title in total, 31 years after they won the first in the Soviet Supreme League in 1984. The championship was secured after a 1-1 draw with FC Ufa, making them unreachable for their closest rivals – CSKA Moscow and FC Krasnodar.

Zenit’s road to success had already started last season, when André Villas-Boas signed a two year contract on the 18th of March, following a disastrous ending to Luciano Spalletti’s five year reign in St. Petersburg. AVB quickly began to build his own team with new players, a new structure, as well as new hope. He immediately found the tone with the players, who no longer publicly complained about being benched. Instead they celebrated each goal made by their teammates out on the field, something we rarely saw during Spalletti’s time as head coach. It seems like the players have more respect for AVB than Spalletti. Furthermore he brought in fresh motivation and new staff, something Zenit clearly needed after five years with Spalletti. AVB brought a new structure to the team which centres mainly around tactical match preparation, something that has allowed his team to dominate the games and scoreboards. Another thing that has changed under AVB is the way the team defend – they are more aggressive now compared to earlier. Crucially, AVB was also able to convince Hulk, who has played a huge role this season, to stay with the club. Rumours of Hulk leaving Zenit emerged in January before AVB took over, when Hulk posted a picture on Instagram of himself and Luis Neto in London. These rumours ended when AVB took over, and Hulk later extended his contract with Zenit. Under Villas-Boas Hulk has undeniably played the best football of his career, first at FC Porto and now for Zenit.

The fifth title allowed Zenit to put a star above their logo.

The fifth title allowed Zenit to put a star above their logo.

AVB has however also been criticized for playing “boring football” and being tactically too cautious. But let us not forget that more or less all Russian teams are cautious, which a look at number of goals scored by the different teams proves. Zenit’s 57 goals in 28 league matches equals 2.03 goals per game, and if we compare this to the English Premier League we see, that the champions from Chelsea only scored a single goal more after 28 league games this season, while Arsenal had one less. Following the draw against Ufa, AVB had this to say to his critics:

“There is always room for improvement for any team, but the most important thing for any team is to achieve thobjectives.”

Zenit opened their season with two really entertaining games; a 4-0 victory away against Arsenal Tula and an 8-1 win against Torpedo Moscow, making them the favourites from day one. With a Champions League campaign going on at the same time, AVB had to rotate between his players in order to keep them all fit, but mostly the defenders were given rest days. The rotation was part of the reason why Zenit could play 13 league games before they eventually lost in the league. The defeat came in November, when Terek Grozny surprised everyone and won 3-1 at Petrovsky Stadium in Peter the Great’s city. Following the defeat Zenit’s results turned into a roller coaster ride with ups and downs. They lost to Mordovia, drew with Torpedo Moscow, but even at their worst they still proved their stability by not ending in a regular losing streak. In the spring they again performed at their best when they needed to. On the 22nd of March they beat Dinamo Moscow 1-0 away and at the beginning of April they defeated CSKA 2-1. At this point had Zenit a tight schedule with some important Europa League matches, where Zenit was eventually beaten by the reigning champions from Sevilla. Following the defeat to Sevilla and an embarrassing cup defeat at home to Arsenal Tula in the fall, Zenit only had the Premier League left to focus on. Following the defeat they went four games without losing, which allowed them to secure the championship Sunday 17th of May against Ufa.

But why did Zenit do so well in the league? As mentioned the rotation system helped the squad get the rest they needed. Furthermore the defender Ezequiel Garay and midfielder Javi García, who were both brought in during the summer transfer window, improved Zenit’s defensive line a lot. Zenit’s goalkeeper Yuri Lodygin has been excellent and one of the main reasons why Zenit only conceded 16 goals in the first 28 matches. Lodygin’s performances have brought him closer than ever to Igor Akinfeev’s otherwise certain role as number one on Fabio Capello’s national team. The aggressive backs Smolnikov and Criscito have both helped the offensive by scoring and assisting a total of 11 goals so far. The creative midfielder Danny and his Russian protégé, the midfielder Oleg Shatov, linked well and fed the strikers Hulk and Salomon Rondón with great passes. The Brazilian beast Hulk has, with his technical skills, dangerous left foot and cleverness, been Zenit’s biggest asset this season. He has scored 15 goals and provided seven assists so far, and is constantly a threat. So where does Zenit excel compared to the Moscow clubs? The answer is pretty simple: They have a really strong squad, much stronger than their rivals, and all the players are friends, which leads to a strong fighting spirit, something the club has lacked earlier. These attributes make them difficult to beat. Furthermore they have kept their motivation and avoided arrogance, even against clubs from the bottom half of the table.

A video from Zenit’s locker room after the match against Ufa showed Danny handing over his captain’s armband to Shatov. Was this just a joke, or was there a deeper symbolic meaning in the action? Rumours about a possible move to Turkish side Besiktas have been surrounding the Zenit captain lately, so perhaps Danny’s actions showed that a new generation is ready to continue the proud traditions of club.

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Follow Valera on Twitter: @ValeraPatotski

 

Author: Valera Patotski

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