When the draw for the last 32 of the Europa League was made back in December, there were one or two ties which stood out as having the potential to steal the show – Tottenham vs Lyon was picked out by many as the big pull of the round, but Bayer Leverkusen vs Benfica took the fancy of many,as did the pairing of Liverpool and Zenit. However, with the Landskrona fan group’s ‘white-only’ mission statement causing a furore among those who saw only headlines – whilst despicably racist, the club’s response to the statement did at least acknowledge the problem, a step forward in many respects – the game soon placed Zenit in the role of the bad guys, the team that needed kicking out of the competition because of the actions of a vocal minority.
Whilst Landskrona’s beliefs must not be defended in the slightest, to brand the entire club as racist would be wide of the mark. To suggest Zenit need expelling is frankly ridiculous. Rather than some sort of good vs evil battle in which the glorious Reds of Liverpool would vanquish the backward Russians, the tie promised a challenge to Luciano Spalletti’s side, an opportunity for his rising stars to pit their abilities against a European great in undeniable decline, a chance at redemption after a poor showing in the Champions League.
Zenit were not the only Russian side in the draw however, and the other two sides were given intriguing ties as well. Anzhi, the moneybags club in vogue, were presented with the chance to continue their march through the centre of Europe – having seen off Dutch challengers in the qualifiers and beaten Italian and Swiss clubs (as well as Liverpool) in the group stages, German club Hannover represented a tough, but winnable battle. On the other hand, Rubin were given one of the hardest draws of all in the form of defending champions Atletico Madrid.
With the first legs in Russia, Zenit and Anzhi had the honour of kicking off the round of 32 with a 5pm UK kick-off. As Zenit and Liverpool got underway in front of a packed Petrovsky in St Petersburg, Anzhi found themselves in a rather different situation – with UEFA refusing to allow European games to be played in Makhachkala, the Dagestani side instead hosted the match at the Luzhniki stadium in Moscow. Whilst the players live and train in Moscow during the season, this presented less of a problem for them than for the fans, whose 1,600km journey from their home city was only marginally shorter than the one faced by their German counterparts. Whilst the Wild Division tried hard to build an atmosphere, Anzhi once again played out the 90 minutes in an eerily deserted bowl.
If the stadium debacle is something which will require solving in the coming years – Anzhi will almost certainly be playing European football again in the immediate future – one problem which does not seem to be causing Guus Hiddink sleepless nights is his side’s attacking prowess. With new €35m signing Willian making his debut along with full back Andrei Eshchenko, Anzhi immediately set about destroying the Hannover flanks. Yuri Zhirkov put in a top class on the left wing, and every counter attack looked likely to result in a goal. Conversely, the defence looked less than solid, Vladimir Gabulov being forced to make a number of fine saves to keep the Germans at bay. On one foray forward, former Zenit man Szabolcs Huszti fired the visitors ahead, but moments later Willian crossed for Samuel Eto’o, and from then on Anzhi had control. Eto’o earned and missed a penalty and both sides created numerous chances, but it was the hosts who clearly possessed the better team, and the 3-1 final scoreline proved a fair reflection on the two sides. Anzhi should move ahead with relative ease.
Meanwhile in St Petersburg, a wasteful Luis Suarez stopped Liverpool going into the lead in the first half, but for the majority of the opening period Zenit controlled both possession and tempo, Hulk and a struggling Danny combining well to torment the English club’s back line. Vyacheslav Malafeev was not without work to do – saving well from Glen Johnson in particular and having to deal with debutant Luis Neto’s hesitancy – but the half time deadlock was reasonably fair.
The second period then, was more varied. Liverpool came out stronger but failed to breach a determined Zenit defence. With 70 minutes on the clock, Hulk picked up the ball, dropped a shoulder and lashed a powerful drive high into Jose Reina’s net to give the hosts a lead marginally against the run of play. However, the goal changed things dramatically, and two minutes later imperious substitute Sergei Semak slammed home an Anyukov cross to leave Liverpool plenty to do in the return leg. That Lucas Leiva was brought on in place of the more attacking Raheem Sterling showed just how the English staff were thinking, and although there will be a battle at Anfield, Zenit have more than proved themselves.
Finally to Madrid, where Kurban Berdyev’s Rubin were expected to effectively roll over for Radamel Falcao and the goalscoring machine that is Atletico. Clearly, they had not read the script – despite recording just six shots to the hosts’ 24, Rubin not only took the lead through Gokdeniz Karadeniz’s early strike, but doubled it in injury time, Pablo Orbaiz the unlikely hero. To say there was a stroke of fortune would be an understatement – Adrien missed what was effectively an open goal, and Rubin’s second sprang from the bizarre decision to send Atletico goalkeeper Asenjo up for a corner despite there being a second leg still to play. That said, Rubin had to take the rough with the smooth too after Roman Sharonov’s red card on the stroke of half time, and having played 45 minutes with ten men will be delighted with a backs-to-the-wall performance and two away goals to take to Kazan.
It is Zenit’s win which will undoubtedly clinch the headlines, Russian success over one of Europe’s prestige clubs and a Hulk wondergoal giving pundits the perfect opportunity to analyse their potential. However it is the Rubin result which is most noteworthy – cling on to the lead in the home leg, and they will have pulled off a remarkable upset which highlights the growing strength of the Russian Premier League. Anzhi should continue their progress in Germany, with future ties already entering the mind.
The optimist would suggest that all three Russian clubs could make the quarter finals, and indeed a look at the draw does little to dampen such thoughts. Zenit’s likely opponents in the last 16 are Basel, arguably the weakest side they will have played in Europe so far. Anzhi, having already defeated Liverpool, could face Newcastle or Ukrainian side Metalist, neither of whom they will feel overwhelmed by, whilst Rubin will, barring an Olympiakos miracle, face off against Levante – a weaker Spanish team than the evidently beatable Atletico. Beyond that we enter the realms of pure speculation, but the message is clear – in the Europa League at least, Russia is a force to be reckoned with.