- Zenit fans will be hoping to see Andrei Arshavin celebrating further goals this season.
With the 2012/13 season still fresh in the memory of many a Russian football fan, they would be forgiven for forgetting that CSKA’s title triumph is soon to be distant history, with the curtain-raiser that is the Super Cup already complete. In much the same way as the inordinately long 2011-12 campaign, which gave players little to no time off before throwing them into first Euro 2012 and then the next season, there has been minimal turnaround between the two footballing years.
That is not to say that the off-season, short as it may have been, has been uneventful. Anzhi, to much discussion and debate, have once again been denied the right to play their European games at home by UEFA. Moreover, the ban has been extended to the entire North Caucasian region, leaving them to once again take to the field in the deserted surroundings of Ramenskoye, the now all-but-abandoned home of former Premier League side Saturn. Despite Kerimov’s billions, a Nike sponsorship and all-out charm offensive, the Dagestani club have yet to convince football’s higher authorities of their peaceful influence on the area.
CSKA, fresh off the back of their title success, have been forced to deal with both the indiscipline of mercurial playmaking talent Alan Dzagoev and the contract situation of Japanese star Keisuke Honda. Dzagoev narrowly avoided a lengthy ban after being pictured leading abusive chants at Zenit supporters during the title celebrations, while Honda’s current deal runs out at the end of the year and shows no signs of being resolved. AC Milan look to be the favourites for his signature, but as it stands there is little in the way of progress being made, although two goals in the Super Cup will add no small amount to his transfer value.
Perhaps the most intriguing tale of all is to be found in St Petersburg, where the media circus that is Luciano Spalletti’s Zenit keeps on rolling. Having surrendered the chance of a third successive championship despite the marquee signings of Hulk and Axel Witsel, the Gazprom-backed side are now facing the fallout of the decision to go for the big names last season instead of adding depth to the existing squad.
Such a policy is always questionable, and after their failure to retain the title last season, a 3-0 thrashing by arch-rivals CSKA on Saturday highlighted their growing deficiencies. Without Hulk up front or Vyacheslav Malafeev in goal, a substandard Zenit slumped to a pitiful performance, with victorious boss Leonid Slutsky lamenting the fact his team couldn’t grab a couple more goals. He had a point.
For a long time, Zenit have prided themselves on possessing the core of the Russian national team – sometimes too strongly, in the case of the Landskrona fan group who caused so much uproar with their infamous manifesto. From the solidity guaranteed by Malafeev in goal and Alexander Anyukov at full back, through the midfield spine of Igor Denisov, Roman Shirokov and Konstantin Zyryanov, to the attacking spearhead of Alexander Kerzhakov up front, the national character of the club has been something which their substantial successes have been built upon.
However, that is all changing. Anyukov, 31 in September, is the only Russian in an often frail backline, and there appear no obvious additions to be made. In midfield, Sergei Semak’s retirement to the coaching staff and the will he, won’t he transfer saga of the volatile Shirokov caused problems, but a major hole has been made in the team by the departure of Igor Denisov, the Russian national captain leaving St Petersburg for pastures new.
It is not just his departure that will worry Zenit fans, but the manner of the deal. A Zenit youth product, Denisov has been synonymous with the club, making over 250 league appearances since his 2002 debut, and creating something of an enigma for himself with his combative playing style and outspoken stance on sporting affairs. Now, in a deal which seems cheap at €12m given the premium on quality domestic talent, he has left his boyhood club for the side seeking to usurp them as the top club in Russia – Anzhi.
There are many who have criticised Denisov’s decision to move as money-driven, and they would probably not be mistaken – he did, after all, instigate a month-long protest at the wages given to his new superstar teammates in a move that saw him dropped to the reserves for the duration. However, there is far more to the move that simple cash. Anzhi are a team that, despite underachieving last season, are on the up. With money burning a hole in their collective pocket, a world class manager and a team which is gradually coming together, they are the one team in the country which can almost guarantee year-on-year improvement at the moment. It is only a matter of time before they arrive in the Champions League.
Zenit, on the other hand, have apparently peaked. Three titles and a cup in five years, including one of the most dominant campaigns in recent memory justified Gazprom’s huge spending on the side. Now, their era of dominance appears to be at an end. A heightened sense of player loyalty has thus far meant that, a second string goalkeeper aside, Zenit’s only major acquisitions this summer have been Anatoly Tymoshchuk and Andrei Arshavin. The former can still put in a shift in midfield, but there are plenty of doubts about Arshavin’s ability to contribute to his boyhood club. At 34 and 32 respectively, the future does not appear to Luciano Spalletti’s priority.
Yes, Dinamo’s young talent Igor Solovyev was snapped up on a shrewd free transfer, and no, Spalletti may not have had too much to say in the deals of either Tymoshchuk or Arshavin, but the fact remains that Zenit now appear to be suffering for a lack of transfer-related foresight. Arshavin may boost shirt sales, the return of two title-winning stars may placate the fans, but when improvements on the field are so obviously needed, it is difficult to see how the pragmatic Ukrainian and often absent Russian will adequately fill the obvious holes.
As CSKA seek to keep their squad intact following their first title since 2006, and Anzhi continue their move to sweep up the best Russian talent with the headline-making move for Dinamo’s Alexander Kokorin, Zenit are currently being left behind ahead of the new season. For a club that has done little to endear itself to the masses with their heavy-handedness in the transfer market, state sponsorship and sense of entitlement, many will be glad to see them slip away from contention.
They will not disappear entirely, and it is unthinkable that they will not put up some sort of title challenge for the majority of the upcoming season. While they may not be everyone’s favourite club, what they also represent is perhaps Russia’s greatest chance of continental success, and a sign to the rest of the footballing world that the nation can be an attractive one to play football in. Like it or not, they have become a flagship side for the Russian Federation, often the last club standing in European play, and one which makes the headlines at least as much as, if not more, than their Dagestani rivals. For them to fall away complete would be a disaster for the game in Russia, but Spalletti and his team have a lot of work on their hands to minimise the damage this year.