FC Zenit started this season's UEFA Champions League with a point to prove after failing to get beyond last term's group stage despite notable additions to their squad. They duly made it through to the round of 16 for only the second time in their history, albeit with a record low tally of six points.
Story so far
Despite Zenit showing promise in their 3-1 opening-night defeat at Club Atlético de Madrid, a disappointing goalless draw at home to FK Austria Wien offered evidence that finding the back of the net would be the biggest problem for Luciano Spalletti's side. Conversely, the team had put 14 goals past FC Nordsjælland and Paços Ferreira in qualifying.
However, a 1-0 Group G victory at FC Porto, courtesy of an Aleksandr Kerzhakov strike four minutes from time, should have begun to ease the Sine-Belo-Golubye's nerves. Then, though, came successive 1-1 draws – at home against Porto and Atlético – which severely dented their chances of progress. They rounded off their campaign with a 4-1 reverse at Austria, but nevertheless sneaked through by a point.
Zenit's seven-game winning streak in the Russian Premier-Liga had just ended when they hosted Porto on matchday three. The match was poised at 1-1 when Hulk, who had equalised against his former club midway through the first half, had the chance to put his side in front from the penalty spot. However, his effort was saved by Helton and Zenit missed their opportunity to claim three points and all but seal qualification with time to spare. It made for a nervous finale.
Key player: Hulk
The Brazilian international is without doubt the focal point of this Zenit outfit – the one player who has the ability to create something out of nothing. At times it seems the 27-year-old is burdened by his team's expectations – he has a tendency to overplay – yet Spalletti will be praying the forward stays fit and on form. Zenit are a much weaker side without their talisman.
Rising star: Yuri Lodygin
Finding a successor to the ageing Vyacheslav Malafeev was never going to be easy, but 23-year-old Lodygin has shown he could be Zenit's future between the posts. Brought up in Greece, he has been a commanding presence in the penalty box and an excellent shot-stopper during his first campaign in Russia. Though he can still improve his judgement and positioning, expect him to be a fixture for club and country for years to come.
Hulk managed 23 shots on target, the most by any player in the group phase. However, he converted only two chances, indicative of a Zenit squad who scored just five times throughout.
"It's hard to accept congratulations after a game like this. As I've said many times, I value the display more than the result. It was very important for us to qualify and we achieved this goal. At the same time, we didn't play the football we should have."
Spalletti after his side qualified despite defeat by Austria on matchday six
Next challenge: Borussia Dortmund
(Home: 25 February, away: 19 March
Zenit are a group low on confidence having won a solitary game in nine since the end of October. The Russian winter break could not have come at a better time for Spalletti and it is imperative he uses it to resolve his defensive problems. Things may not get any easier as their first match of 2014 is against Dortmund. The Bundesliga team have experience of playing in the cold of eastern Europe in February, having beaten FC Shakhtar Donetsk over two legs en route to London last term. Zenit will need to improve if they wish to reach the last eight for the first time.
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