Andrew Flint –
Zenit Saint Petersburg sacked Mircea Lucescu on Sunday, bring to end a turbulent and turgid season in Russia for the hugely successful Romanian manager. The former Shakhtar Donetsk supremo arrived with the weight of countless domestic triumphs—and a historic UEFA Cup win in 2008—but an even greater burden proved to be waiting for him in the cavernous bowl of the Petrovsky as he failed to deliver the intense demands of the fans and directors by missing out on Champions League qualification.
Roberto Mancini is widely reported to be the next man to step into the hot seat having been said to have flown to Moscow with his representatives to settle contract details, and he does so at a time of upheaval throughout the club. Not only is Lucescu departing, but infamous former club President and former RFU president Sergei Fursenko is returning to the role in which he oversaw the first Russian league championship ten years ago. He has invited his former sport director Konstantin Sarsania back to resume his role, which will be responsible for all transfer activity, although the latter has admitted the particular strategy will be determined once the successor to Lucescu is confirmed.
What is certain is that the incoming manager, whether it be former Manchester City boss Mancini or someone else, will be handed a significant budget to revamp the squad. Last summer underwhelming signings such as Robert Mak, Hernani and Yoann Mollo, coupled with the high-profile departures of Hulk, Axel Witsel and Ezequiel Garay for a combined €100m, leant the squad a less than stellar feel that has struggled to find consistency. Sarsania has stressed that the focus will be on bringing through more youth products to the first-team group after too many have slipped through the net into relative obscurity, but has also unsurprisingly explained international signings will also be made.
Mircea Lucescu – Where did it all go wrong?
From the start of the league campaign, Lucescu looked a touch perplexed on the sidelines. Three draws from the opening four league matches immediately placed pressure on Zenit to catch up on their rivals, and although they claimed the Russian Super Cup and scored more than any other top-flight side, they couldn’t find any meaningful consistency. Only once did they win more than three league matches in a row, and despite an impressive run of ten wins from eleven competitive fixtures in September and October, they could not string together more than three consecutive league clean sheets.
Failure in the league was bad enough, even if Zenit finished just one point short of Champions League football, but the manner of their capitulation in the Europa League round of 32 first leg away to Anderlecht was most likely the start of the end. Excuses of it being the first competitive match after the winter break ran hollow, and the rousing fightback staged in the return leg couldn’t save the club from another disappointing continental campaign. European success is paramount for the Gazprom-backed giants, and to fall so meekly at the first knockout hurdle was unpalatable.
Perhaps his most deep-rooted error was to fall too readily into the trap of blaming officials, pitch conditions and almost anything but his players or his team selection. Known for possessing a tempestuous nature, Lucescu’s brusque approach can only pay off when married to tangible results on the pitch, and as soon as they deteriorated, he found support amongst fans and the media in short supply.
A Fresh Start or a False Dawn for Zenit?
The return of Fursenko and Sarsania, who will be granted a significant degree of autonomy on the running of most matters both off and the pitch, could work one of two ways. Roberto Mancini is said to be one of the most demanding coaches when controlling teams he is in charge of, and if he is indeed the man who steps into Lucescu’s shoes he may find an equally combative boss hard to work with and vice versa. André Villas-Boas is a meticulous planner whose accurate methods and self-confidence precipitated a slightly unsavoury departure last summer, and if any clashes arise, there will only be one winner.
However, with the clear ambition of the club directors – and supporters – to fight back to the top table of Russian and European football, as long as Mancini is given the players he demands there is tremendous potential for Zenit’s prospects next season. Although the objectives for the new season have not officially been announced, there is little secrecy surrounding the clearest target – missing Champions League football once is bad enough, but twice in a row would be unthinkable.
Andrew Flint is an English freelance football writer living in Tyumen, Western Siberia, with his wife and two daughters. He has featured on These Football Times, Russian Football News, Four Four Two and Sovetski Sport, mostly focusing on full-length articles about derbies, youth development and the game in Russia. Due to his love for FC Tyumen, he is particularly interested in lower league Russian football and is looking to establish himself in time for the 2018 World Cup. Follow Andrew on Twitter @AndrewMijFlint.