There have been many false dawns for Russian clubs playing in the UEFA Champions League over the last decade. FC Zenit St Petersburg and PFC CSKA Moskva both managed to win the UEFA Cup, but no team has made a major impact on Europe's biggest stage, with the exception of FC Spartak Moskva who reached the semi-finals in 1991.
Things could be about to change. There is optimism aplenty that Zenit could go far this term. Luciano Spalletti's side achieved their best result in the competition last season when they debuted in the round of 16, losing to SL Benfica. However, a similar run would be regarded as a failure this time around.
The club have spent heavily in bringing the likes of Hulk and Axel Witsel to the Stadion Petrovski and they could prove the missing pieces in the jigsaw for a squad yet to realise their full potential in the UEFA Champions League.
Zenit already have a strong spine. Goalkeeper Vyacheslav Malafeev played some of the best football of his career last season, while Roman Shirokov and, in particular, Igor Denisov remain two of the most underrated midfielders on the continent.
Coach Spalletti is committed to a 4-3-3 formation and it is in attack where things look especially promising. Playmaker Danny is expected to return to action soon after seven months out with a cruciate ligament injury and the prospect of him lining up alongside Aleksandr Kerzhakov and Hulk is mouthwatering.
Expectations for Spartak are not as high, though Unai Emery's charges appear capable of causing an upset or two. The Red and Whites have been very inconsistent in the Russian Premier League this term, yet the former Valencia CF boss has his team playing a much more fluid style of football than his predecessor Valeri Karpin.
New signing Romulo has been impressive and could be one to watch in the group stage, while Dmitri Kombarov is starting to fulfil his potential and has been excellent for club and country already this autumn.
Two Russian sides, CSKA being the other, progressed to the knockout stages for the first time in 2011/12. Zenit and Spartak have the ability to repeat this feat, yet the former will be keen at least to make the quarter-finals given the players at their disposal.
The opinions expressed here are the writer's own and not those of UEFA.
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