Andrew Flint –
Zenit vs Fenerbahçe – Thursday, February 21, 17:55 GMT/18:55 CET – Krestovsky Stadium, St. Petersburg – Russia
Yet again Zenit crumbled upon their return to football after the punishing winter break. At least that’s what the scoreline suggests; a 1-0 defeat to Süper Lig strugglers Fenerbahçe is another in a long line of spring failures that have undercut some impressive performances – at least at home – before Russia’s icy fingers have wrapped themselves around the Neva River and beyond. However, there was far more to the first leg than the one-goal aggregate deficit, especially when one bears in mind Harun Tekin’s spectacular penalty save from Robert Mak.
New signings Yaroslav Rakitskiy and Wilmar Barrios were thrown in at the deep end, and both put in committed displays that will stand them in good stead for their home debuts. A huge crowd is expected at the Krestovsky as the club once again launches a campaign to draw in fans with low ticket prices. The lack of an away goal will be a slight concern of course, but with the backing of their home crowd and the incredible unbeaten record that few have looked like breaching they will still be confident. The third major arrival, Sardar Azmoun, only had a brief appearance off the bench.
One of Azmoun’s competitors for a place up front, Anton Zabalotniy, has had a torrid time trying to establish himself in St. Petersburg. Even in training this week, he became the centre of mirth as he tripped up over a stationary mannequin much to the amusement of his teammates on social media. Miha Mevlija remains at the club due to issues with paperwork being submitted to Empoli, which leaves a lot of pressure on the new boys. Commenting after the first leg, Daler Kuzyaev remained upbeat despite the relative disruption. “I think we seized the initiative in the second half, and become more confident to work with the ball,” he said. “But sharpness was still a bit lacking. Due to our fans, desire and dedication, I’m pretty sure that we’ll be able to complete Fenerbahçe.”
The Turkish giants scored again at home after edging past Zenit in the first leg when they returned to domestic league action, but again they failed to win. Even when their visitors Konyaspor went down to 10 men after just half an hour when former Krylia Sovetov Samara striker Adis Jahović was sent off, they still fell behind. Just a single point separates five teams, the last of which is in the relegation zone behind Fenerbahçe only on goal difference.
The very real threat of an unthinkable relegation will weigh that little bit more heavily on their minds as they travel to Russia. It is debatable how much value thereeven is in a continental campaign in light of the fact they will certainly not be returning next season, and with very little prospect of going all the way this season. The motivation that Kuzyaev spoke of above will be very hard to locate for the ageing squad of former luminaries, many of whom will surely be considering alternative employment to escape the madness of their current struggles. Istanbul rivals Besiktas have fallen upon harder times financially despite their far healthier league position, so the stress of uncertain times in the long term loom ever closer for Fenerbahçe.
The challenge for Ersun Yanal is to balance the priorities of an intense behemoth while not losing face. If he is able to simplify the task to his players, the equation is actually very simple; don’t concede, and they are through the next round. Former Zenit favourite Martin Škrtel is fit after playing all 90 minutes at the weekend, and may be called upon to invoke some fighting spirit. Whether that attitude itself will be enough is another matter as Zenit look to keep their noses clean ahead of a challenging trip out east to face Ural Ekaterinburg next.
Zenit vs Fenerbahçe – Players to Watch
Yaroslav Rakitskiy #44 – Zenit St. Petersburg
From current Fenerbahçe star Martin Škrtel to Erik Hagen, Zenit St. Petersburg fans have loved uncompromising shaven-headed centre-backs, and now they have another in Yaroslav Rakitskiy. The Ukrainian’s arrival couldn’t have come soon enough after the departure of Luis Neto to Sporting on loan, not to mention the increasingly pourous defence that has seen their initial title challenge falter. After many years of success at Shakhtar Donetsk, his transfer caused an uproar in Ukraine due to the political tensions between the two countries as well as the role Zenit’s owners Gazprom have had in the region. However, his quality cannot be denied. A brutal fearlessness is ideal for Zenit right now – and where better to prove it than away in Istanbul. Rakitskiy will have to adapt to his new teammates in the most testing of circumstances, but it would be brave man to bet against him dominating proceedings.
Elif Elmas #99 – Fenerbahçe
As a six-year-old, Elif Elmas danced around challenges for a tiny local club by the name of Fenerbahce Tefejuz. By glorious coincidence, just over a decade later he was playing the club’s namesake, but this time on a far grander scale. The Macedonian wunderkind has broken through this season to claim a starting spot amidst a sea of experienced, and some would say washed up, professionals. Still only 19, he bade his time after signing in the summer of 2017. This season he has only failed to feature in three competitive games, and while his superficial statistics suggest a mundane contribution, they bely his true value to the team. He grew up as an attacking playmaker directly involved in the final third but has since used his superb passing and vision from the base of midfield.
Zenit vs Fenerbahçe – Match Stats
- Zenit hold the Europa League record for the longest unbeaten run at home from the group stage onwards, now standing at 22 matches (W20, D2). In fact, they have never lost in the competition proper at home.
- Zenit have not conceded more than one goal in any of their last 16 Europa League home games, but in that run run have kept just six clean sheets
- After losing the first leg of a Europa League knockout tie 1-0 away four times, they have come back to go through on aggregate three times.
- Fenerbahçe are yet to win in four previous visits to Russia (D2, L2).
- They have never won an away leg in four round-of-32 Europa league ties
- In their last five Europa League away matches, they have lost four and conceded twice in the other (a 2-2 draw to Anderlecht).
Futbolgrad Prediction: Zenit vs Fenerbahçe – 2-1
Zenit vs Fenerbahçe – Possible Lineups
Zenit St. Petersburg:
Lunev – Anyukov, Rakitskiy, Ivanovic, Nabiullin – Kranevitter, Barrios, Kuzyaev – Driussi, Dzyuba, Mak
Manager: Sergey Semak
Tekin – Isla, Neustädter, Aziz, Ali Kaldirim – Elmas, Topal – Moses, Valbuena, Ayew – Slimani
Manager: Ersun Yanal
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.