Andrew Flint –
Zenit vs Benfica – Wednesday, October 2, 20:00 BST/21:00 CEST – Gazprom Arena, St. Petersburg – Russia
Less than a year ago, Zenit St. Petersburg were limping through a Europa League group that contained the less than fearsome prospects of Slavia Prague, a Bordeaux in turmoil – and recently shorn of both manager Gustavo Poyet and star man Malcom, now a Zenit player of course – and Copenhagen. Aleksandr Kokorin’s graceful finish late against Slavia saved a valuable three points that ended up helping Zenit to top spot, but within weeks he was incarcerated for a violent attack in Moscow and Sergey Semak’s men were spiralling into their traditional autumn collapse as they threw away what had looked like an unassailable lead.
Fast forward to 2019, and Kokorin is all smiles having been released and resigned by the club, Zenit are reigning champions and the competition has been upgraded to the Champions League with an impressive draw away to Olympique Lyonnais already under their belts. Last weekend’s defeat away to Lokomotiv Moscow may have taken them off top spot, although few will seriously believe Zenit as anything other than the team to beat still. The maturity of their performance in France on their return to the top flight of continental football has given them the chance to re-establish their status as deserved. Without disrespecting Benfica, this is the most winnable fixture of the group and a different kind of pressure comes with it.
It has been refreshing to see Yuriy Zhirkov in arguably the form of his life, or at least of the latter stages of his career. Sergey Semak has proven his status as a bona fide tactician through his ability to identify what the former winger can bring further up the pitch despite his slowing legs, and not just a club legend who waltzed into a cushy position. The respect with which he is held was evident in the tunnel after the Lokomotiv defeat when Fedor Smolov, who had suggested at half time that the authorities were favouring Zenit and refused to retract his statement despite having won, felt moved to apologise to Semak personally. Nevertheless there is some considerable work to do with Sardar Azmoun’s form and declining attitude on the pitch and in eking out creativity from a midfield without a conductor in chief. Benfica should not be underestimated.
Portuguese clubs have long been purveyors of fine youth, developers of raw materials and ultimately vendors; the practice of generating organic value is not something new. In the last five seasons, Portugal’s top three of Porto, Sporting and Benfica have raked in a combined ₤1.1 billion in transfer fees to give them an average profit of nearly ₤50 million each per season trading in players alone. Even still, losing a talent as generational as João Félix is a blow to take for any side as Tom Kundert, author of The Thirteenth Chapter, explains. “Benfica’s results this season have been better than their performances. In the last 2/3 weeks especially they have played poorly with no fluidity in attack – which was a feature of their play under Bruno Lage.”
“They seem to be having difficulty in adjusting to the loss of two of their best players João Félix and Jonas. That said, it is largely the same team as last season and the return of Brazilian midfielder Gabriel from injury will be a big boost. Also, while €20 million summer signing Raúl de Tomás has really struggled, the other expensive forward bought in the close season, Vinícius, is starting to make a big impact and scored a crucial.goal from the bench on Saturday.” That game was a narrow 1-0 win after going down to 10 men, but a greater indicator of their potential lies in their 4-0 thrashing of Sporting Braga – who dispatched Spartak Moscow in the Europa League qualifiers with relative ease – and an emphatic 5-0 Supertaça win against Sporting.
With such a scale of history and relative resources there comes an expectation of certain results. Zenit can themselves attest to that, or at least their long line of stellar managers can; often though the accusatory finger is pointing at Zenit. Benfica have complained about what they see as favourable officiating in Porto’s favour on a number of occasions, including Adel Taarabt’s red card at the weekend. The referee for their games against Vitoria Setubal even alleged a coin was thrown at him from the stands when the club claim there was no reaction at the time. Building a siege mentality and blaming the rest can work to great effect as Sir Alex Ferguson showed over almost three decades at Manchester United. This is only the case if the foundation of strong results come with it.
Zenit St. Petersburg vs Benfica – Players to Watch
Wilmar Barrios #5 – Zenit St. Petersburg
In the absence of a true creator in midfield, Wilmar Barrios has had to develop his game in St. Petersburg from game to game. He is never going to spray effortless crossfield passes with the metronomic accuracy and vision of Leandro Paredes or make darting runs into the box like current boss Sergey Semak used to, but instead he has learned how to adapt his immediate impact according to match situations. In one of his earliest matches in Russia he played in a lavolpiano role in Ekaterinburg in chilly conditions to great stabilising effect. More recently however he has carried possession forward himself when required. Benfica will gain confidence if allowed to settle and see counter attacks develop slowly in front of them; the former Boca Juniors enforcer has a golden opportunity to stake his claim as one of the continent’s foremost central midfield generals.
Adel Taarabt #49 – Benfica
It is hard to keep track of how many false dawns have broken over the Moroccan’s mercurial career, but even he will admit time is running out to leave on a high. From luxury jewel to lazy firebrand, many of his labels have been less than flattering, although Luka Modrić apparently claimed Taarabt could play for any of Europe’s top clubs. For a career that has spanned 12 seasons already, his tally of 239 professional games is one measure of his unfulfilled promise. One thing that cannot be denied however is his innate natural talent. This season he has completed the last five matches with the exception of the final ten minutes last weekend when he was sent off without contributing a goal or assist from the base of the midfield. Ignore him, however, and Zenit could be in trouble.
Zenit vs Benfica – Match Stats
- Zenit have faced Benfica six times, winning three and losing three of their matches
- Zenit won the only group-stage meeting between these two in Portugal, coming out 2-0 winners in 2014
- Although Sergey Semak’s men have only won once in their last six European matches (D1, L4), they have won 11 of their last 13 home games in UEFA competitions
- Benfica’s best result in Lisbon came in the UEFA Champions League round of 16 back in 2012 when Axel Witsel played 90 minutes. The Belgian would move to St. Petersburg that summer
- The Portuguese giants have only won three of their last 13 European matches away from home
- This is Benfica’s 15th group-stage campaign, but in the Champions League era they have only made the knockout stages five times
Futbolgrad Network Prediction: Zenit vs Benfica – 2-1
Zenit vs Benfica – Possible Lineups
Zenit St. Petersburg
Lunev – Karavaev, Rakitskiy, Ivanović, Santos – Ozdoev, Kuzyaev, Barrios – Driussi, Dzyuba, Zhirkov
Manager: Sergey Semak
Vlachodimos – Tavares, Ferro, Dias, Grimaldo – Pizzi, Taarabt, Fernandes, Rafa Silva – Seferović, Vinícius
Manager: Bruno Lage
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.