Zenit's domestic strife
COME the end of May, Zenit could be the first club in history to win a European trophy and find themselves bottom of their domestic championship in the same month.
At present they lie 13th in the 16-team Russian Premier League, with one point more than the three teams below them. And after the decision to defer all pending domestic engagements to give them a clear run at, and recovery from, the UEFA Cup final, it seems more than probable that, short-term, they will sink further.
No comfort that for Rangers. Zenit's lack of fixtures has just made a formidable task on Wednesday even tougher.
If there are any chinks in Zenit St Petersburg's armour they will most likely be found at the back, where Dick Advocaat's options have been decreasing in ever diminishing circles.
The Dutchman must now curse Zenit's decision to cash in on 6.5m Slovak Martin Skrtel, who has looked so impressive since joining Liverpool in January. Advocaat has not seen any of the money. To make matters worse he also allowed another centre back, Norwegian Erik Hagen, to sign for Wigan Athletic at the same time.
But then, Zenit could scarcely have dreamed that they would be following their two departing defenders to the north west of England this May. Nor could Advocaat have envisaged the severity of the injury crisis that would lay waste to his rearguard subsequently.
The biggest losses have been stopper Nicolas Lombaerts, and left-back Kim Dong-Jin (who may just be back for the final). Were Zenit to suffer any further injuries in that department, his back line on Wednesday could be made up of four players – Ricksen, Sirl, Gorshkov and Shirokov – who are better known as midfielders. In recent months, Advocaat has shown himself to be a master of reinvention. Having shifted Radek Sirl from left wing to left-back, he then cast Roman Shirokov – signed as a playmaker – at the heart of his defence.
For all its makeshift appearance, the effect has been impressive. Advocaat's decision to put Shirokov at the back proved inspired, so much so that fellow Dutchman Guus Hiddink handed him his international debut there in March; Sirl, meanwhile, was voted Russia's best left-back in April by the respected daily Sport Express.
Those who have followed Advocaat's career will not be surprised to see him redefining roles with such imagination. At PSV he took Wilfred Bouma (who started life as a forward and is now at Aston Villa) out of midfield and recast him as a centre back. He did exactly the same with Andre Oojier (now at Blackburn Rovers). As a disciple of Rinus Michels and the dictums of total football, shifting players between positions comes naturally to him. It is a classic Dutch manoeuvre.
But then so much of this current Zenit team carries an Orange stamp. While the team strays slightly from the classic 4-3-3 template that most Dutch coaches favour, the influences are clear. Overlapping full-backs (Anyukov and Kim Dong-Jin), a stopper-sweeper combination (Lombaerts/Krivanec and Shirokov) in the heart of defence, one intelligent holding midfielder (Anatoliy Tymoshchuk) who sits deep and allows the rest of his colleagues to push forward at will, and a Number 10 capable of orchestrating those attacks, and conjuring the unexpected (Andrei Arshavin).
That is not to say that Advocaat teams are built on Cruyff-style idealism. Fernando Ricksen has little to do with total football. But, like many others in the squad, he can play more than one position. This degree of versatility that helps compensate for a distinct lack of strength in depth.
First name on Advocaat's teamsheet? Tymoshchuk every time. Consistent for former club Shakhtar Donetsk, he has been exceptional at Zenit. According to Vladislav Radimov – the man he displaced as captain – he's good enough to go to the very top. "Three words sum up Tymoshchuk on the pitch: work, work and more work. He's also honest and caring guy, who looks out for others. He's been linked to Juventus in the past, and he'd be fully suited to Italian football. I think Serie A would be the ideal fit for him.
"He's in his element in personal tussles. England would suit him too, but Spanish football is a bit too open. As for German football, we've already shown against Bayern Munich that that would be a bit boring for him."
Up front, Zenit showed against Bayern that they can live without Andrei Arshavin, but there is no doubt they are a more multidimensional force with him orchestrating the attack.
"Arshavin can create goals out of nothing. Very few footballers have that gift. He scores when you don't expect him to," says Advocaat, who knows he faces a battle to hold on to him beyond the summer. "Arshavin is a real pro. He always trains at full pelt and he never gets injured. He can still get better, but needs to iron out the flaws in his game."
Normally the physically imposing Pavel Pogrebnyak, right, would be Arshavin's foil, and despite Advocaat's efforts to underplay his absence due to suspension, he will be missed. Advocaat faces a conundrum when it comes to his replacement. Does he opt for Turkish forward, Fatih Tekke, or livewire, but inconsistent, Argentinean Alejandro Dominguez. He could even play both. Whatever the formation, one thing is certain. Zenit will not sit back. It will be a busy night for the Rangers rearguard.
Route to the final
SECOND QUALIFYING ROUND
Zlate Moravce (A) 2-0 (H) 3-0 (agg) 5-0 Zenit won the first leg in Slovakia through goals from Erik Hagen and sub Aleksei Ionov. Pavel Pogrebnyak, Ilya Maximov and Kim Dong -in netted in the return.
Standard Liege (H) 3-0 (A) 1-1 (agg) 4-1 Andrei Arshavin's double silenced the Belgians and Kim Dong Jin added a late third. Pogrebnyak's equaliser in the returned allayed any fears and ensured smooth passage to the group phase.
AZ Alkmaar (H) 1-1
AZ forward Ari opened the scoring after 20 minutes, but was sent off 19 minutes later. Zenit equalised just before half-time thanks to a Tymoshchuk penalty.
Larissa (A) 3-2
Zenit came from behind to win in Greece. Pogrebnyak opened the scoring for the Russians but they trailed 2-1 with 20 minutes left. Konstantin Zyrianov equalised before Fatih Tekke struck the winner.
Nrnberg (H) 2-2
Angelos Charisteas gave the visitors a surprise first-half lead before two goals in four second-half minutes from Pavel Pogrebnyak and sub Aleksei Ionov put Zenit in front. Leon Benko headed Nrnberg level six minutes from time.
Everton (A) 0-1
Tim Cahill scored with five minutes left to give Zenit their first defeat in the competition. Zenit's Nicolas Lombaerts was sent off for handball on the goalline. Zenit still managed to secure third place and qualification for the knockout phase.
Villarreal (H) 1-0 (A) 1-2 (agg) 2-2
Pogrebnyak struck the only goal of the first leg to give Zenit a home win. He opened the scoring in the second leg in Spain, a vital strike as Villarreal hit back to win the game 2-1, but Zenit went though on away goals.
Marseille (A) 1-3 (H) 2-0 (agg) 3-3
Early in the second half of the first leg in France Zenit trailed 3-0 but Arshavin's late counter proved key. Two goals from Pogrebnyak in the return game in Russia saw Zenit qualify on away goals once more.
Bayer Leverkusen (A) 4-1 (H) 0-1 (agg) 4-2 A stunning away win in Germany made Europe sit up and take notice of Zenit. Arshavin, Pogrebnyak, Aleksandr Anyukov and Igor Denisov were the scorers. The 1-0 home defeat in the second leg was irrelevant.
Bayern Munich (A) 1-1 (H) 4-0 (agg) 5-1
Against the might of the Bavarians no one gave Zenit a hope, even after a 1-1 draw in Munich, courtesy of Lucio's own goal. A staggering 4-0 win in St Petersburg stunned Bayern and sent Zenit to the final. Pogrebnyak scored two to take his total for the tournament to 10, but he also picked up the booking which causes him to miss Wednesday's final through suspension. Zyrianov and Victor Fayzulin also scored in a famous win.
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Monday 20 May 2013
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