Fortunes could hardly have been more contrasting for Russia's UEFA Champions League representatives on matchday one. Few gave FC Spartak Moskva much hope of repeating FC Rubin Kazan's memorable victory away to FC Barcelona in October 2009, but the capital side went tantalisingly close, with only the brilliance of two-goal Lionel Messi denying them a famous win at the Camp Nou.
While Spartak were lauded in the Russian press for their heroic display in an eventual 3-2 defeat, the same could not be said for FC Zenit St Petersburg. A crushing 3-0 reverse at Málaga CF has left coach Luciano Spalletti with plenty to ponder for perhaps the first time since he took over almost three years ago. The reigning Russian champions were sluggish and vulnerable at the back, and the Italian offered no excuses, saying: "All in all, it was a disaster and we deserve all the criticism in the world for that."
For a team that has dominated the Russian Premier League for the last couple of seasons, these are slightly worrying times. Even domestically they have struggled for consistency, picking up just four points in their last four outings. Meanwhile, summer signing Hulk failed to make much of an impact in his first start for the club, although he was not the only one to have an off-night in the south of Spain. There is a lot of pressure on the Brazilian given his price tag, yet some of that could be lifted in the next couple of weeks when Danny makes his long-awaited return.
The Portuguese international has been out with a cruciate ligament injury since February and has been sorely missed by Zenit, given his link-up play and ability to create something out of nothing. Zenit midfielder Roman Shirokov defended new arrivals Hulk and Axel Witsel by saying "it takes time for foreign players to settle in Russia", but that did not apply to Danny, who has proved to be one of the most successful imports of all time in the Premier-Liga since arriving in 2005.
Despite their midweek setback, though, Zenit still have every chance of qualifying from Group C. The side from St Petersburg are notoriously slow starters and have yet to claim even a point in their opening group game after three attempts. AC Milan visit the Stadion Petrovski in a little under two weeks and they can expect a stern examination from a team with much to prove.
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