The Russian Premier League season started this July and Zenit picked up where they left off the prior season. Even though many of the key players suffered disappointment at Euros, by late July Zenit was already looking the strongest club in the league. With predominantly the same lineup as the previous championship campaign, Zenit were in cruise control sweeping its biggest rivals in succession: 2-0 over Dinamo Moscow, 3-1 away to CSKA Moscow, and a 5-0 demolishing of the most hated Spartak Moscow.
The only new signing to see time on the pitch was 18 year old Montenegrin Luka Đorđević who had a promising performance in Dagestan against Anzhi, narrowly missing a couple goals. Additionally, winger Vladimir Bystrov was like a new signing, playing well after returning from serious injury.
Yet despite the early season promise, Luciano Spalletti often spoke in the press regarding a desire for new signings – dropping big names – actually, huge names. He claimed the club were working on a big signing. And only big signings. Big signings that seemingly were never going to materialize.
After all the team did have some holes, particular a lack of depth. In recent weeks the team has had almost no bench of note. Injuries and a lack of additions have taken a toll on Zenit’s attack. Forward Danko Lazovic was unregistered after coming to blows with teammates.
Zenit were also thin in center midfield. It was here where Zenit found themselves over-run against Benfica in the Champions League knock-out stage last year. Sergei Semak (age 36) and Konstantin Zyryanov (age 34) are quality players but becoming less effective due to age. While Igor Denisov and Roman Shirokov have been hitting peak form, there was a sense of a third key player missing in Spalletti’s counter-attacking triangle in midfield.
Up front, with injuries to Aleksandr Kerzhakov and Aleksandr Bukharov, depth was also lacking. Dordevic and 21 year old Maksim Kanunnikov, have done well to fill the gap domestically, but there is an obvious sense that they are not ready for the bright lights of the Champions League. The team has also relied on 26 year old Viktor Fayzulin who is finally developing, but he still remains preferably a bench option.
On deadline day, it would appear the rumors of the big names would not come to fruition. After all, over the previous few seasons Zenit would often attempt to sign a big named player and be turned down. The list of attacking players sought after by Zenit in recent years consists of nearly every big name attacker who has been transferred: from Berbatov to Bryan Ruiz ,to Marco Di Vaio and Emmanuel Adebayor. Whereas Anzhi have been able to land the marquee names, Zenit have been unable.
With a failure to add attacking options and with the Champions League registration looming it appeared Zenit would enter the Champions League with the same lineup that it ended the previous campaign. Furthermore, the wells of Gazprom appeared to be drying up with the team not willing to spend on Arshavin’s return and the last club transfer of over 20 million Euros being Bruno Alves in 2010.
And on an even dimmer note, Zenit also faces the uphill battle of what is a bad mark on the club, as seen here: “In color of Zenit there is no black.” A full black player would have a difficult challenge to come to Zenit at this point in time.
Yet a couple days ago the sensational big coup arrived in Hulk and Axel Witsel, creating shock and outrage across the footballing world. In something of a watershed moment for Zenit, a corner was turned. By signing Hulk, a player sought after by top sides throughout the world and a current Brazilian international in attack, Zenit have firmly arrived on the international stage. Eto’o was signed by Anzhi at the tail end of his career, where as these two stars are in their peak, with as stated, major clubs across Europe interested.
In Axel Witsel, Zenit likely found the last piece to the puzzle. Center midfield lacked the depth and energy needed to take the club to the next level. While Zenit would often forgo the midfield battle in playing on the counter exclusively, more was needed in that area.
Zenit are strong in defense across the back four. Slovakian Tomáš Hubočan and Belgian Nicolas Lombaerts are very strong at CB, being criminally underrated by the international press. Bruno Alves – very effective at Euros for Portugal- is strength in depth. What was needed was another attacking presence and new energy in midfield. That is exactly what these signings represent.
Without a doubt Spalletti has had a big influence in bringing in the big names and establishing the legitimacy of the club’s ambition. Signing a current Italian international from Serie A, Domenico Criscito, was the first step in helping Zenit to be an established destination. It is perhaps the Criscito signing that was the first step in turning the corner. Advancing out of a tough Champions League group last year also played a big part. So now Zenit are making headlines and have finally landed the marquee international attacking player that has been sought after.
With the Russian Premier League as competitive as ever and Zenit back in the Champions League, it should be an exciting season for fans in St. Petersburg. It has not been a wholly smooth rise since the 2008 UEFA Cup victory, but now four years later one club-for-one-city Zenit have turned the corner to arrive on the Champions League stage.
Follow John Sager on twitter: @johnsager