Manuel Veth –
Zenit Saint Petersburg’s first home match of 2017 started with plenty of promise. After going down 2-0 against RSC Anderlecht in Belgium, Zenit had a mountain to climb at the Petrovsky Stadium in Saint Petersburg.
Under the leadership of captain Danny, and their red-hot attacking midfielder Giuliano, Zenit were able to find a way back into this tie. Giuliano opened the scoring in the 24th minute, which meant that Zenit had to score just one more time to even the score line.
Zenit turned up the heat, and Anderlecht were reeling. Then in the 72nd minute, Artem Dzyuba equalized the score on aggregate with a powerful finish. Four minutes later it was, once again, Giuliano, who completed a wonderful attacking run by Dzyuba to make it 3-0 for Zenit.
At this point, Zenit would have been through to the next round. All they had to do was to keep Anderlecht off the scoreboard. But Zenit’s recent European football history is filled with tragedy.
Zenit have been here before
Last season, the Russians dazzled in the group stage of the UEFA Champions League only to see the wheels come off against Benfica Lisbon in the round of 16. This year again, Zenit were one of the most dominant teams in European football during the group stage.
But, somehow, Zenit were not able to preserve their European form, and advance to the round of 16 of the Europa League this season, as Anderlecht made it 3-1 in extra time, and therefore advanced thanks to the away goal rule. Fingers will once again be pointed at the lengthy winter break. Those who blame the three-month-long winter break will have a point, of course.
Post-Soviet football in general, and Russian football in particular, has long struggled with how to deal with the three-month-long break in the winter. Poor performances in Europe, for example, led to the Russian Football Union’s controversial decision to move the Russian Football Premier League schedule from a spring to fall calendar to fall to spring calendar.
The idea was, of course, that by shortening the winter break, Russian clubs would have a better chance to compete in the first round of the European knock out stages, which usually take place before the Russian Football Premier League resumes play in early March. But the calendar switch also had to accommodate the realities of the harsh Russian winter.
Even with the winter break being moved to mid-season, Russian teams cannot compete in the country from December to early March. In fact, the Russian winter already makes football impossible in early November, and the prohibitive weather can last well into March.
It would be wrong to just blame the winter break
Furthermore, Zenit actually won their only European trophy in 2007-08 when the Russian Football Premier League still operated under the old Soviet league schedule. The calendar switch, therefore, more and more is turning out to be the wrong approach for clubs.
Yet it would be wrong to blame the winter break alone. Zenit head coach Mircea Lucescu, for example, has demonstrated with his former club, Shakhtar Donetsk, that teams can stay in form over a lengthy winter break—ironically his successor Paulo Fonseca was eliminated by Celta Vigo in the round of 32 on Thursday night.
This time, however, he failed to get the team ready for what on paper appeared to be an easy ticket to the next round. But Zenit did not lose the tie in the second leg. In fact the sky blues showed the sort of form at the Petrovsky Stadium that made them one of the favourites for winning the competition.
It was indeed in the first leg in Anderlecht were Zenit gave away this tie. When playing in Belgium a week ago, Zenit never appeared to be in match form, and were simply outclassed by a team that, on paper, was worth €20 million less than the Russians.
Zenit’s fall out of the Europa League will lead to uncomfortable questions
Lucescu, who was given the funds to strengthen every area of the squad during the winter break, will now have to answer the tough question on whether he had done enough to get the team ready for the tie against Anderlecht. Hence, as Zenit are getting ready to travel to Moscow, where they will face CSKA Moscow on March 4, the pressure will be on the head coach to not slip early in the title race.
Zenit are currently five points behind Spartak Moscow, who open the post-winter break season in Krasnodar, in the Russian Football Premier League table. A slip against CSKA and a successful result by Spartak could mean a difficult spring for Mircea Lucescu.
With the Brazilian Giuliano, the Europa League, in the meantime, loses one of the most exciting players of the competition this season. The Brazilian has scored eight goals in eight games in Europe, and also contributed six assists. It has been a remarkable run for the Brazilian, who surely has played himself onto the radar of several high profile clubs.
With both Krasnodar and Rostov advancing to the next round it has not been all bleak for Russian football, however. In fact Zenit fans may even ask themselves why both Krasnodar and Rostov managed to take their hurdle despite the winter break.
Manuel Veth is a freelance journalist, and podcaster for WorldFootballIndex.com. He is also a holder of a Doctorate of Philosophy in History from King’s College London, and his thesis is titled: “Selling the People’s Game: Football’s transition from Communism to Capitalism in the Soviet Union and its Successor States”, which will be available in print soon. Originally from Munich, Manuel has lived in Amsterdam, Kyiv, Moscow, Tbilisi, London, and currently is located in Victoria BC, Canada. Follow Manuel on Twitter @homosovieticus.