Zenit Enters Winter Break in Third Place

Zenit Enters Winter Break in Third Place

The tumultuous halfseason saw sensational signings, in-team rivalry and rifts between players and management.

Published: December 12, 2012 (Issue # 1739)

FC Zenit went on mid-season winter break after Monday’s home league game against FC Anzhi Makhachkala, which capped a tumultuous half-season that saw sensational signings, in-team rivalry, rifts between players and management and a crisis in results that was only partly rectified in recent performances.

Monday’s cagey encounter pitted last year’s Russian champions against a new title contender — the high-spending, star-studded Dagestani club featuring ex-Barcelona legend Samuel Eto’o, in a battle for second place in the Russian Premier League, which was ultimately won by the latter. The 1-1 draw left Zenit in third place, just behind Anzhi in second, with Moscow’s CSKA top of the table.

The match was played in an empty Petrovsky stadium, following a Russian Football Association decision to punish the St. Petersburg club with two games behind closed doors for an incident in which a firecracker thrown from Zenit’s fan sector injured FC Dinamo Moscow goalkeeper Anton Shunin in an away game last month. Last week’s game against CSKA Moscow was also played without fans, making Zenit the first team in Russian history to play two straight games without support. The club lost 20 million rubles ($666,000) in lost ticket revenue, according to sports daily Sovietsky Sport.

The punishment drew a sharp reaction from Zenit management, which expressed discontent over the organization of the Russian Premier League and voiced suggestions for the formation of a new CIS football league in which Zenit would participate instead of the current Russian league.

The idea sparked widespread public discussion about the tenability of such a move, and received vocal support from a number of top clubs in Russia, Ukraine, Belarus, Azerbaijan and Kazakhstan, including CSKA Moscow, Anzhi, FC Shakhtar Donetsk and FC Dynamo Kiev.

Monday’s game was the last in the Russian Premier League until March 9, and broke the historical record for being the first Premier League match to be played so late in the year in Russian and Soviet history, with temperatures of minus 8 degrees Celsius and a pitch more reminiscent of an ice hockey rink than the pristine turf of a football field.

Last week also marked Zenit’s last game in the UEFA Champions League this season, as the team was knocked out of the competition after finishing in third place in the group stage, unable to repeat last year’s feat of reaching the knockout stages. However, the 1-0 away victory against AC Milan ensured participation in Europe’s secondary cup competition in the spring — the Europa League.

The draw for the knockout stages will be held Dec. 20, with other contenders including FC Chelsea, FC Inter Milan, and fellow Russian clubs Anzhi and FC Rubin Kazan.

Despite the victory against the Italian team, the issue of squad unity and discipline resurfaced during the game when Zenit’s Brazilian striker Hulk refused to shake hands with team coach Luciano Spalletti after being substituted in the 80th minute. The player threatened to quit the club during the winter break if the situation didn’t improve, though he later apologized and voiced his commitment to the club.

The incident was reminiscent of an earlier, more protracted disagreement between Zenit homegrown midfielder Igor Denisov and the club, in which the Russian player expressed discontent over the salaries of his two new teammates Axel Witsel and Hulk, which broke Russian transfer records in their September moves to the team for a combined 80 million euros ($104 million). Denisov demanded a pay raise that would bring his salary in line with theirs before he would agree to continue to play for the team. The player spent more than a month in the reserves squad before issuing a public apology that brought him back into the side.

Although Zenit fell short of equaling the successful positions it held before the last winter break — first place in the Russian League and second in its Champions League group — and the expected panacea of large investments in the transfer market did not ensure success, the club was able to avert disaster, as at one point in the season it was in seventh place in the league and fourth in its Champions League group.

Despite the turnaround, coach Spalletti expressed disappointment in the last press conference of the season.

“I cannot be satisfied if I am not in first place, because I represent a club and a city that deserve to be in first place,” he said Monday.

“I am sure that after the break we will improve and will fight for first place in the league,” he added.

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