Champions League – Can Zenit Join Europe’s Elite?

Champions League – Can Zenit Join Europe’s Elite?

We have reached the halfway point of the 2015/16 Champions League group stage and, thus far, things could not have gone much better for Zenit St Petersburg.

André Villas-Boas’ side have collected a maximum nine-point haul from their three fixtures to date and are now odds-on within the sports betting markets of 32Red UK to progress to the last-16 as the winners of Group H.

They are already assured of finishing third or better, guaranteeing their involvement in European competition past the turn of the year, one way or another.

Having built momentum, though, the focus from here should be on surging into the knockout rounds, rather than limping over the line.

Were they to do that, there is a chance that they could become members of an elite Champions League club.

Few may be expecting them to go all the way, with the likes of 888sport pricing them at a rather unfavourable 100/1 to lift the trophy at the San Siro in May, but the challenge is there to better their previous best showing and push on towards the quarter-finals.

Moving forward with a 100% record would help to build belief, and only four sides before them have achieved such a feat—with only two managing to claim six wins from six at the group phase in the 21st century.

Europe’s elite includes clubs like Real Madrid (2011/12 and 2014/15) and Barcelona (2002/03) that have set the benchmark in recent times, while Paris St. Germain (PSG) proved to be faultless in the early part of the 1994/95 campaign.

There is also a Russian entry on that roll of honour, so Zenit would not be making domestic history were they to mirror their efforts so far, with Spartak Moscow proving to be a tough nut to crack in 1995/96. That, though, is the kind of company Villas-Boas’ men could be joining over the coming weeks.

It will be easier said than done, that goes without saying, with match days four through six set to separate the best from the rest, with the tension building steadily from here as the scramble to book a safe passage to the next round, or wrap up the consolation of prize of dropping into the Europa League, intensifies.

The good news for Zenit is that they are already almost out of sight, and could wrap up their Champions League group in early November.

Rather surprisingly, they are considered to be 21/10 shots away at Lyon in their next outing, despite having accumulated eight points more than their French hosts and having swept them aside with relative ease on Russian soil—with a 3-1 victory underlining their dominance.

They are not always the best of travellers, and two of their three European fixtures to come will be on the road, but they have already prevailed in a five-goal thriller at Valencia and should head to France, and Gent in Belgium beyond that, believing that they have the tools to trouble anybody.

Getting key men to produce on these grandest of stages will obviously be vital, and they have been fortunate in that sense so far.

Hulk already has three Champions League goals to his name and could be a dark horse at 60/1 with 32Red UK to finish as the competition’s leading scorer if he gets into a groove – even when taking into account the presence of Cristiano Ronaldo, Lionel Messi and the other usual suspects.

Maybe, though, avoiding a standing alongside the perfect group stage performers of the past would be no bad thing—providing they do not suffer the most dramatic of stumbles.

It should be noted that PSG crashed out in the semi-finals back in 1995, Spartak Moscow at the last eight a year later and Barcelona the quarter-finals in 2003.

Real Madrid made it to the last four in 2012, and again in 2015, but on each and every occasion, those who promised so much have failed to deliver.

It is still very early to be suggesting that Zenit can match those achievements, never mind better them, but they have answered every question asked of them so far and Villas-Boas—in his final season at the helm—should be aiming high as a club set up to compete with the best in the business endeavours to write their own chapter of Champions League history.

By Manuel Veth –