At the end of October things could not have looked better for FC Zenit. They were top of the Russian Premier-Liga, having won eight games in succession, while their 1-0 victory at FC Porto in the UEFA Champions League gave them a great chance of sealing early qualification for the knockout stage.
However, since Luciano Spalletti's side's shock 2-0 cup defeat by third-tier FC Tyumen on 30 October, the team from Russia's second city have managed just one victory in seven and on Wednesday succumbed 4-1 at FK Austria Wien. On the bright side, the Sine-Belo-Golubye are through to the round of 16 of Europe's top club competition, although optimism that Zenit can reach the quarter-finals for the first time is in short supply.
Zenit have appeared disjointed in recent weeks. There is a lack of organisation or a game plan – what plan they have seems to centre around giving the ball to Hulk and seeing what the Brazil forward can conjure. Incidentally, the 27-year-old, with 23 attempts, had more shots on target during the group phase than any other player, perhaps hinting at an overreliance on the powerful No7.
An injury to Danny, which has kept the Portuguese international out for five weeks, certainly has not helped, depriving the squad of their other main source of goals. However, he was the only key player missing during this period as the St Petersburg club have remained largely injury-free.
The main problem has been a lack of concentration at both ends. The central defensive pairing of Nicolas Lombaerts and Tomáš Hubočan has looked unconvincing and has been at fault for goals conceded with alarming regularity.
Aleksandr Kerzhakov may have scored against Austria, but that was just the third time the 31-year-old had notched in his last 17 UEFA Champions League outings. Though a crucial part of Fabio Capello's Russia side for his running off the ball, he has been unable to carve out an effective role under Spalletti that utilises the best of his talents.
Zenit will now enter the Russian winter break, which could not come at a better time. The team have been low on confidence for weeks, yet over the next couple of months Spalletti can analyse which areas he must strengthen.
The 54-year-old would be the first to admit they were lucky to make the round of 16 – doing so with a mere six points, a record low for a side finishing runners-up in a UEFA Champions League section. Moreover they failed to win at home in Group G. Zenit certainly have a talented group of individuals, so expect them to be a different team in February, when continental competition resumes, from the one that qualified by the skin of their teeth.
The opinions expressed here are the writer's own and not those of UEFA.
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