Andrew Flint –
Russian Super Cup – Zenit vs Lokomotiv Moscow – Saturday, July 7, 17:00 BST/18:00 CEST – VTB Arena, Moscow
At times Zenit St. Petersburg looked more lost at sea last season than sailing to the Russian title, but the expensively-assembled wave eventually swept them to the famous cut-glass trophy. Effortless it was not. The now almost annual winter collapse left their seemingly surefire title triumph in tatters with three defeats in the four games leading into the winter break. Claudio Marchisio spent more time on social media than on the pitch – and looked hopelessly out of his depth on the rare occasion when he did stroll elegantly across the whitewash. Aleksandr Kokoring was held for months until finally being imprisoned for assault.
This time though an imperious winter transfer window pushed them out of reach of their rivals. There can’t have been many windows that targeted so accurately and successfully a team’s shortcomings; the ponderous, pourous defence was rigidly snapped into place by the snarling aggression and long-range passing of Yaroslav Rakitskiy, Serdar Azmoun relieved the immense pressure on an exhausted Kokorin-less Dzyuba, and Wilmar Barrios was the glue that held the midfield base together. To add to that mix Zenit have added Hamburg’s Brazilian left-back Douglas Santos, which one would assume -along with the contract extension signed by yuriy Zhirkov – signals the end of Elmir Nabiullin’s strangely disrupted Zenit career.
The worrying thought for their rivals is that they look leaner, meaner and more ruthless than they did this time last year. Seven pieces of deadwood have been surgically removed to help balance the books, returning loanees Luka Djordjevic and Miha Mevlja could provide depth in defence and in attack, and more transfers could still be made. Now with the Champions League group stages returning to St. Petersburg, the major challenge is whether they can finally make an impact at the highest level of all. First though, the lure of more silverware at Supercup will be irresistible.
Lokomotiv Moscow have returned from their victorious end of season, where they beat Ural Ekaterinburg in the Russian Cup final for the second time in three years, and have quietly improved their lot too. Grzegorz Kyrchowiak has signed permanently from Paris Saint Germain after his solid loan spell last season, while Ufa’s versatile defender Dmitri Zhivoglyadov and 22-year-old Brazilian Murilo Cerqueira inject some youth into a slow backline. Vedran Corluka came through a serious injury to return last season, but is now 32 and needs some long-term backup, which Cerqueira offers.
They have, however, been struck with the loss of senior stalwarts Manuel Fernandes, Igor Denisov and Dmitri Tarasov. Admittedly the latter has not been a consistent first-team starter for a while, but it leaves three gaps in midfield that have not been replaced at the time of writing. Fringe players Igor Portnyagin, Vitaliy Denisov and Taras Mikhalykh have all been lopped off the squad list with little immediate need to be replaced. When comparing their trimming down to their Super Cup opponents however, there is relatively less meat on the bones left.
More creative emphasis than ever before will be placed on the Mirnachuk twins. Thankfully both are in the form of their life, most pleasingly the club’s top goalscorer Anton who has lived most his footballing life firmly rooted in his brother’s shadow. Of equal importance is the gradual re-emergence of Rifat Zhemaletdinov after his ill-fated sojourn at Rubin Kazan. His demanding nature and, most likely, poor advice had seemed to have led him astray. Towards the end of last season though he began flying down the flank like his burgeoning early promise suggested he would. For the season’s curtain-raiser at the magnificent but horrifically delayed VTB Arena, Lokomotiv will be tested to the absolute limit by the all-powerful Zenit.
Zenit vs Lokomotiv Moscow – Players to Watch
Christian Noboa #16 – Zenit St Petersburg
The Ecuadorian playmaker had a frustrating season filled almost entirely with recovery from a cruciate ligament injury. His return from loan at Rubin Kazan last summer was intended to provide one last swansong for the graceful passer but it was not to be. Now that serial Instagrammer Claudio Marchisio has slipped out the back door at the Krestovsky, the role of luxury, experienced creator now rests on Noboa’s shoulders alone. This season will almost certainly be the South American’s last at the club given his age and the increased competition from younger legs like the revitalised Magomed Ozdoev, Hernani, Matias Kranevitter, Wilmar Barrios and the injured Daler Kuzyaev. For this showpiece season opener though, the slower pace will suit his metronomic passing range and vision perfectly.
Dmitri Zhivoglyadov #2 – Lokomotiv Moscow
A new arrival at the RZD Arena from the increasingly reputable talent production line at Ufa, Zhivoglyadov has a chance to stake his claim early for the potentially vulnerable right-back slot at Lokomotiv. Handed the number 2 shirt straight away will be a gentle encouragement, but the advancing years and indifferent form of last season’s incumbent Vladislav Ignatyev, himself a converted winger. Zhivoglyadov has a great sense of anticipation, and has been deployed effectively across the backline at Ufa. With the new boy’s greater threat of pace down the right flank Lokomotiv could slowly become a more nuanced side in attack too.
Zenit vs Lokomotiv Moscow – Match Stats
- There has been one goalless draw in 14 years between these two.
- In the modern Russian era Zenti have faced Lokomotiv in the Super Cup twice, winning both times (on penalties in 2014, ans 2-1 in 2008).
- Although travelling to Lokomotiv’s city of Moscow, Zenit are nominally the home side; in their last two fixtures as the visitors against Zenit, Lokomotiv have scored three goals on both occasions.
- Zenit have had a flawless preseason to date, scoring 11 and conceding just one goal on the way to winning all four friendlies.
- Lokomotiv Moscow have lost just one competitive match this calendar year while also winning the Russian Cup narrowly against Ural Ekaterinburg.
- In their last 14 league matches in the Russian capital, Lokomotiv have only kept four clean sheets.
Futbolgrad Network Prediction: Zenit vs Lokomotiv Moscow– 1-2
Zenit vs Lokomotiv Moscow – Possible Lineups
Zenit St. Petersburg
Lunev – Smolnikov, Ivanovic, Rakitskiy, Santos – Ozdoev, Barrios, Noboa, Driussi – Azmoun, Dzyuba
Manager: Sergey Semak
Guilherme – Zhivoglyadov, Corluka, Kverkvelia, Rybus – Krychowiak, Barinov – Anton Miranchuk, Aleksey Miranchuk, Zhemaletdinov – Smolov
Manager Yuriy Semin
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.