On 3rd September, Zenit completed the two of the biggest transfers in Russian, and indeed world football history but securing the signatures of Axel Witsel and Hulk. With the deals causing shock across the globe, the transfers were seen as a clear sign of Zenit’s intent to transform their domestic domination into European success, launching a dynasty within Russia and a genuine assault on the ultimate prize, the UEFA Champions League.
In Russia as anywhere however, it is one thing to plan and another entirely to execute. Since the Belgian midfielder and Brazilian forward arrived in St Petersburg, Zenit – who have won the last two Russian championships and were pre-season favourites for the current campaign – have won just one of their six games in all competitions. Three defeats and two draws have been the other results, with their lone win coming away at First Division side Baltika in the Russian Cup.
Those defeats have placed Zenit on the cusp of elimination from the Champions League after just two rounds, shattering any dreams of progressing beyond the first knockout round achieved last season. This week’s 3-2 defeat by Milan was cruel in nature – Tomas Hubocan’s own goal denying his side a point after fighting back from two goals down against a world-class performance from Christian Abbiati – but the initial stages of the match showed up Zenit’s obvious frailties, Milan’s Stephan El Shaarawy able to waltz through to double the lead during a spell in which the hosts simply could not use their possession.
Whilst defensive mistakes, on-form goalkeepers and unstoppable shots are a part of the game – Milan’s first came from a deflected free kick, and Malaga’s Isco netted two superb goals in their other European defeat – it is the latter point which has caused Zenit so many problems in recent weeks. A basic inability to penetrate when in possession has seen stats weighed heavily in their favour and yet the scoreboard turn against them, an issue often associated with top teams who have run out of ideas.
That the problem so obviously lies in midfield has made the apparent crisis all the worse. After the signing of Hulk and Witsel, long-serving Zenit men Igor Denisov and Alexander Kerzhakov reportedly complained to the management about the pair’s extortionate salaries, and were banished to the youth squad as punishment. Kerzhakov has since returned, but Denisov remains in pseudo-exile with the youngsters. As of yet, Witsel is not integrated into the midfield triangle in the same way as the new Russia captain, and the lack of balance in Zenit’s play was evident against the Italians. Only when Witsel was instructed to sit deeper, allowing Roman Shirokov to make his forward runs and link up with Kerzhakov, did Zenit begin to threaten, and any change to the Denisov-Shirokov-Zyryanov axis will no doubt take time to be bedded in.
However, whilst it is true that Zenit’s current form is worse than at any previous point over the past two years, it would be nothing short of naive to write them off at this moment in time. Witsel and Hulk’s integration into the side will require time, and even now it would appear the Brazilian is getting to grips with his new side, a goal against Milan adding to strikes at Baltika and Krylya Sovetov. On their own they will not win matches, and in a side of Zenit’s undoubted quality, they should not need to. The current poor form cannot be attributed solely to the new signings.
Furthermore, the situation may not be as bad as first feared. Domestically, they have certainly stuttered after a flying start, and indeed since crushing Spartak Moscow 5-0, Zenit have only won one of their last six league fixtures – away at relegation favourites Mordovia. However, even with their slump in form taken into consideration, after a third of the season Zenit remain just five points adrift of Anzhi at the top of the table, and with their most difficult fixtures out of the way until the second set of matches. Having already travelled to CSKA and Anzhi and hosted rivals such as Spartak, Dinamo, Rubin and high-flying Terek, the five teams they have yet to play are all sides which the champions should be beating – trips to Krasnodar, Alania and Volga alternating with home fixtures against Kuban and Rostov. Whilst the back half of the season will see a higher percentage of difficult away trips, their theoretically easier run-in could be a key factor in the title race.
Aiding their cause further, and a welcome feature of the current Premier League season, is the level of competition among the top sides. Surprise package Terek may be falling away after a blistering start which saw them defeat Zenit in St Petersburg, but the resurgence of Lokomotiv under Slaven Bilic and presence of Anzhi amongst the contenders has led to a growing number of weeks in which the elite clubs drop points. Anzhi may have lost only once thus far, but CSKA sit behind them having already lost three matches, with Spartak sharing similar statistics. As Dinamo emerge from their slump under the new management of Dan Petrescu, they too will find themselves stealing points from those at the top of the standings, and so it may only require a few back-to-back wins to propel Zenit back to the summit.
All things considered – the upcoming fixtures and nature of the league, the ability of manager Luciano Spalletti, their financial backing, and the quality of the talent already on offer – it is difficult to see Zenit’s poor form continuing for much longer. Even in Europe, they should be able to overcome Anderlecht and at least secure a Europa League berth, while the eventual return of the exiled Denisov and injured Danny will help to drag the St Petersburg side out of the small hole they are currently in domestically. The Champions League may have to wait for another year, but domestic success is still very much on the agenda. With two thirds of the season still to play, you would be a fool to write Zenit off at this stage.