Ahead of Celtic's last 32 Europa League clash with Zenit Saint Petersburg, we caught up with Richard David Pike of Russian Football News to profile the Russian side.
Zenit’s two predecessor teams were Murzinka founded in 1914, changing their name to Bolshevik post-World War One in 1924 to coincide with the Russian Revolution of 1917 and Stalinets founded in 1925 by workers of the Leningrad Metal Plant.
The first registration of the name “Zenit” occurred in 1936, with Bolshevik being absorbed into the newly set-up Zenit sport society. After the conclusion of the 1939 Soviet football season, Stalinets joined Bolshevik in the Zenit sport society and the combined team was then subsequently known as Zenit.
Between 1940 and 1991, Zenit emerged as Soviet Cup winners and Soviet champions only once in 1944 and 1984 respectively. After the formation of the Russian Premier League in 1992, Zenit won the 1998-99 Russian Cup and finished 2nd in the 2003 Russian Premier League.
During this period, former Russian international Andrei Arshavin made his debut for the club aged 19 on 2nd August 2000 in a 3-0 victory in the 2000-01 Intertoto Cup Semi Final against then English Premier League club Bradford City.
December 2005 saw Russian natural gas giant Gazprom purchase a majority stake in the club and began to invest heavily. Since Gazprom’s investment, Zenit have won 4 Russian titles in 2007, 2010, 2011-12 and 2014-15 and 2 Russian Cups in 2009-10 and 2015-16.
However, their most famous moment occurred in 2008 as Zenit featuring the likes of Anatoliy Tymoshchuk, Konstantin Zyryanov, Igor Denisov and the aforementioned Arshavin defeated Celtic’s fierce rivals Rangers 2-0 in the UEFA Cup Final under the guidance of former Gers manager Dick Advocaat.
Last season, Zenit moved into their new 68,134 capacity Krestovsky Stadium. This alongside the club’s recent success has made it one of the most popular in Russia. In a recent article by Russian sports website championat.ru, Zenit are the second most popular Russian club amongst both stadium and TV audiences in the 2017-18 Russian Premier League with a 18.5 per cent share, trailing only Spartak Moscow. However, based on just stadium attendance, Zenit average gates of 44,578 spectators per game, the highest average attendance in the league.
Zenit so far under Mancini
After 20 league games under former Manchester City and Inter Milan manager Roberto Mancini, Zenit currently sit 2nd on 37 points, 8 behind league leaders Lokomotiv Moscow with 10 games remaining in the season as it begins a near 3-month winter break. So far, Zenit have scored 31 goals and conceded 13. Zenit’s season so far has been a tale of two halves, in the first ten games, Zenit won seven and drew three, however, the next ten have seen only 3 wins, 4 draws and 3 defeats. At first Zenit were dominating the league and looked a certainty for the title. However, as I wrote for Russian Football News recently, a combination of a drop in performance from some of their foreign star players as the winter months arrived alongside potential complacency has left them facing a real struggle to haul back Lokomotiv in the Spring http://russianfootballnews.com/bobby-dazzled-problems-in-piter/.
Tactics and Key Players
A variety of different formations such as 4-4-2, 4-3-3, 4-5-1 and 3-4-3 have all been used throughout the season by Mancini. The most popular formation under Mancini of late though has been 4-3-3. Zenit’s style under Mancini is a continuation of similar playing styles imposed on the team by their previous managers such as Advocaat, Luciano Spaletti and Andre Villas-Boas, an intricate and patient short passing game.
As for key players, one man for Celtic to watch is 23-year-old Argentine international playmaker midfielder Leandro Paredes. Paredes was Zenit’s major summer signing costing EUR 23 million from Italian side AS Roma. He has a fine range of passing and at the beginning of the season was arguably the best central midfielder in Russia, the crowning moment being a fine display in Zenit’s 3-1 home victory against Spanish side Real Sociedad on Matchday 2 of the UEFA Europa League group stage. Paredes’ displays have dipped in recent months from early-season, nonetheless, he remains a danger for Celtic who must nullify his influence on the game.
A more familiar face who is also a danger man is 26-year-old Russian international striker Aleksandr Kokorin. For years, Kokorin was tipped to be a future star, yet spent a large amount of time failing to live up to his early potential. However, the appointment of Mancini this season has really seen a transformation, Kokorin has so far in the league scored 10 goals in 20 games alongside 8 goals in 9 games in the Europa League, by far the best return in his career so far.
Zenit’s displays so far in Europe
Zenit’s European campaign so far this season started slowly, surviving a near elimination at the hands of Dutch side Utrecht in the final Europa League qualification round. Since then, however, the performances in Europe have been very good. The highlight of which being two impressive 3-1 victories home and away in the group stages against Sociedad, currently 9th in La Liga.
The only disappointment was a 1-1 draw away at Rosenborg, which only came courtesy of a late equaliser by Kokorin. The likes of Arsenal, AC Milan, Borussia Dortmund, Napoli and Atletico Madrid are now viewed understandably as Europa League favourites, however, Zenit, quality-wise, belong in that next batch of good teams behind the favourites which includes Villarreal, Athletic Bilbao and Sporting CP.
So can Celtic beat Zenit?
Zenit start as favourites, their strength is their attack. Kokorin is not the only source of goals, 23-year-old Argentine winger Emiliano Rigoni has also in European competition showcased his talents with 6 goals for the club including a hat-trick in a 3-1 home win against Rosenborg. Curiously, Rigoni has yet to score in the league for Zenit, but he remains a threat. Combined with Paredes pulling the strings from deep and Celtic must defend well to keep Zenit from scoring.
However, one area Celtic could exploit is Zenit’s defence. Zenit might have only conceded 13 goals in 20 games, yet, this figure is misleading, many teams early doors against Zenit in the league were reluctant to attack them, understandably in fear of the attacking prowess they possess. However, Zenit’s 3-0 home loss to Lokomotiv Moscow on Matchday 15 of the league season highlighted the vulnerability of Zenit’s ageing defence to fast counter-attacks. All second half, Lokomotiv tore Zenit’s defence apart on the break. The likes of 30-year-old Domenico Criscito and 33-year-old Branislav Ivanovic have recently shown signs of decline in their performances and this is something Celtic can exploit.
Another positive for Celtic is Mancini’s poor record in Europe. In the 2006-07 and 2007-08 seasons when Mancini was managing Inter Milan, Inter got winnable ties in the last 16 of the Champions League whilst also post-Calciopoli scandal had the luxury of dominating Serie A. Both seasons though, Inter lost to Valencia and Liverpool respectively, with the latter of which being comprehensive. At Manchester City, Mancini also failed to advance beyond the group stages of the Champions League in both 2011-12 and 2012-13, although admittedly, both times, opponents of the calibre of Napoli, Dortmund, Real Madrid and Bayern Munich stood in the way.
Finally, the long winter break in Russia gives Celtic a chance, Zenit only resume their league matches in the first weekend of March 2018 after the completion of the tie against Celtic. Therefore, between now and the Celtic tie, Zenit only have a warm weather training camps alongside friendly matches, so rustiness could be a factor in the first leg of the tie at Celtic Park.
This rustiness has cost Zenit in recent seasons, in 2015-16, Zenit faced Portugal’s SL Benfica in the last 16 of that season’s Champions League, yet lost the tie 3-1 on aggregate. Last season, Zenit got another favourable draw against Anderlecht in the last 32 of the Europa League, once again, the lack of competitive games proved costly as Zenit lost the first leg away 2-0. Despite being up 3-0 going into the final minutes of the second leg at home, a late Anderlecht goal eliminated Zenit on away goals. Celtic must take advantage of both playing at home and Zenit’s rustiness in the first leg as it is a golden chance to take a lead to Saint Petersburg, where in the last two seasons, Zenit, chasing a game at the start of the home second leg have folded under pressure.
Comparing the calibre of players available to both sides and the huge sums spent this summer by Zenit (EUR 85 million) Zenit should be expected to progress and I am backing them to do so, but I think the scoreline will be tight, taking into account Celtic normally having a good home record in Europe, Zenit rustiness going into the first leg at Celtic Park, below par recent performances by Zenit domestically and Mancini’s poor record in European club football. Zenit 3-2 Celtic.