Things can only get better: Zenit fly flag against Abramovich-backed Chelsea, with Russian football in desperate need of lift

Things can only get better: Zenit fly flag against Abramovich-backed Chelsea, with Russian football in desperate need of lift

Zenit St. Petersburg face a daunting start to their Champions League campaign against title holders Chelsea on Tuesday night, at a time when Russian football is in dire need of a lift from its flag-bearers in the competition.

These are troubling times for football in Russia. After the national team endured the debacle of an early exit from Euro 2020 in the summer, at club level things aren’t much brighter.

The UEFA coefficient rankings – which take into account the performance of a country’s clubs in European competition – have Russia languishing down in 10th place, behind the likes of the Netherlands, Scotland and Austria.

Just a couple of years ago Russia was sixth in the table, ahead of Portugal; now it is looking nervously over its shoulder at Ukraine.

More broadly, bickering continues over whether the current limits on foreign players in Russian Premier League squads should be scrapped.

Some claim it would take the handbrake off and allow clubs to flourish (developing Russian players along the way); others argue it would be detrimental to the development of homegrown talent.

Weighing in last week, President Vladimir Putin signaled he wanted the limit to remain, even though the decision will technically rest with the clubs and the Russian Football Union.  

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The current slump is the upshot of several campaigns of poor performance in Europe.

Last season, none of Russia’s three Champions League representatives – Zenit, Lokomotiv Moscow and Krasnodar – made it to the knockout stages.

Zenit and Lokomotiv both finished bottom of their groups, while Krasnodar finished third – sneaking into the Europa League knockout rounds, only to get dumped out at the first time of asking.

This year, Zenit are Russia’s only representatives in Europe’s flagship club competition after Spartak Moscow – who finished runners-up in the Russian Premier League last season – were well-beaten by Benfica in the qualifying stages.

Spartak will feature in the Europa League alongside Lokomotiv; neither of Russia’s two hopefuls for the inaugural UEFA Conference League – Rubin Kazan and Sochi – made it through qualifying.

In short, Russian football finds itself a long way from the highs of 2008 – when Zenit won the UEFA Cup with victory against Glasgow Rangers, before beating Manchester United in the Super Cup final – or 2005, when CSKA Moscow tasted UEFA Cup glory.

In the current context, any repeat from this year’s Russian representatives seems impossible, even with the added motivation of Zenit’s Gazprom Arena being the venue for the Champions League final on May 28.

Zenit were the last club to taste European glory in 2008. © Action Images / John Sibley

Zenit travel to Stamford Bridge as Russian champions – a title they have held in the past three seasons.

Backed by the largesse of Gazprom, Zenit remain Russia’s richest and most ambitious club. Already top of the league and undefeated after seven games of the current season, they seem a shoo-in to make it four in a row.

But domestic dominance has not translated into European success. Zenit picked up just a solitary point in their last Champions League tilt, finishing rock bottom of a group containing Borussia Dortmund, Lazio and Club Brugge.

Here’s to a firey @ChampionsLeague campaign this season! 🔥🔥🔥 #UCL

— FC Zenit in English✨ (@fczenit_en) September 14, 2021

On Tuesday night, Zenit will face the kind of step up against Chelsea that has proved so difficult in recent years, so accustomed have they become to getting things their own way at home.

Chelsea are riding high on confidence under Thomas Tuchel – not least because of their unexpected Champions League triumph in Porto at the end of May.

The continued backing of Russian billionaire Roman Abramovich allowed for the acquisition of Romelu Lukaku for a club record £97.5 million in the summer, adding what could be the final piece to the puzzle. Lukaku has already hit the ground running on his return to the club.

Big Rom: Lukaku has hit the ground running on his return. © Reuters

All the signs are that the visitors managed by former midfielder Sergey Semak could be in for a chastening night in London.

“I think Chelsea have no weak points, they are a very good team and there’s a reason they won the Champions League,” Semak admitted at his press conference on Monday.

“Chelsea are the strongest type of team that deals with any weaknesses and makes great use of their strengths. They have strengthened their squad well and are a team that’s improving and becoming even stronger.” 

Semak oversaw Zenit training at Stamford Bridge on Monday. © Reuters

Zenit have, however, been handed a boost with the news that Brazilian duo Malcom and Claudinho have been cleared to play despite the threat of FIFA sanctions because of Zenit’s decision to recall them from international duty.

Both men offer flair going forward, with Claudinho being Zenit’s most eye-catching arrival of the summer in a €12 million deal from Red Bull Bragantino.   

Claudino helped Brazil to Olympic gold along with teammate Malcom this summer. © Reuters

After an injury-hit start to life in Russia, Malcom is finally showing more consistent signs of the €40-million player Zenit thought they were signing from Barcelona in 2019.

Both Malcom and Claudinho were part of the Brazilian gold medal-winning squad in Tokyo in the summer, with the former scoring an extra-time winner against Spain in the final. 

Elsewhere, Iranian frontman Sardar Azmoun – heavily linked with a move to Germany in the transfer window – is the biggest goal threat.

Zenit St. Petersburg’s Brazilian star Malcom and Serdar Azmoun of Iran. © Sputnik

Big targetman Artem Dzyuba – Zenit and Russia’s talisman in recent years – has had a difficult opening to the season and might not feature from the start at Stamford Bridge, but he at least offers options.

Perhaps the biggest concern is the potential absence of midfielder ball-winner Wilmar Barrios, who as of Tuesday morning was sweating on a possible change to quarantine laws which would allow him into the UK after he recently represented Colombia on international duty.

Zenit will be without former Liverpool defender Dejan Lovren as well as Russian international full-back Vyacheslav Karavayev, neither of whom have traveled. Attacking midfielder Magomed Ozdoev is a longer-term injury casualty.

If Zenit do have any success against Chelsea, it is most likely to come on the counter-attack, where Ukrainian center-back Yaroslav Rakitskyi offers ball-playing qualities that often defy his position, setting off assaults with his vision for a long pass.

Rakitskiy offers ball-playing options for Zenit. © Reuters

Semak, however, was keeping his cards close to his chest in terms of personnel and system in Monday’s chat with the press.

The Zenit boss will know his team face a tough challenge at the home of the reigning champions, in front of a first full crowd for a European night at Stamford Bridge since the pandemic struck.  

Beyond Chelsea, Juventus and lesser-fancied Swedish team Malmo also await in the group stage.

It would be harder to find a tougher opening assignment, at a time when expectations are low for Russian clubs in Europe and morale among many supporters arguably even lower.   

But if Zenit can get a result – if only a point – it could breathe some much-needed life back into Russian football.

At the moment, things can only get better.  

By Liam Tyler

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