The announcement of one major signing will always get fans' pulses racing, but FC Zenit St Petersburg supporters must have been struggling to contain themselves when the Russian champions revealed two headline additions to their squad late in the transfer window.
The arrivals of Axel Witsel and Hulk, for a combined total estimated at a hefty €80m, were hailed as major coups for a club looking to build on last season's achievement of debuting in the last 16 of the UEFA Champions League. Expectation is stratospheric, yet midfielder Sergei Semak sees no reason why he and his team-mates should be worried.
"Last year our team did pretty well, and this year everyone's expecting a performance at least as good as that. We don't need to be scared of the pressure which this expectation brings," said the experienced Russian international. "When you're aiming for victory, you have to give your best anyway. I think the victory of Chelsea last year proved that it's not only the technical level of the team that's important, but also your will to win."
That spirit has certainly been coursing through the veins of the Zenit squad so far this term. Luciano Spalletti's men have picked up where they left off last season, and currently top the table having lost just once in seven Premier League outings. "It's really important to have started the championship well. It gives you a great incentive to continue. But everyone knows that the hardest part is still to come, and you need to face a lot of challenges during such a long season," explained Semak, 36. "As for the Champions League, we are looking to prepare ourselves as best as we can, and I think we can progress through the group stage. It would be a great achievement, though it's not going to be easy as all the teams in the competition are strong."
The first of those rivals are Málaga CF, making their bow in the group phase, with AC Milan and RSC Anderlecht rounding out a too-close-to-call Group C. However, the section is by no means as formidable – on paper at least – as that which Semak contested during the 2009/10 campaign with FC Rubin Kazan. Rubin produced one of the shocks of the season in beating FC Barcelona in Spain before drawing with them on home soil. They repeated the latter result against eventual winners FC Internazionale Milano only to narrowly miss out on the knockout rounds.
"Rubin Kazan was a great collective, where team spirit meant everything – it could literally decide the result of a match. Zenit also have great team spirit, which means we don't stop believing that we have a chance to go through the Champions League, or have another great season in the Russian league," said Semak, who left Rubin for Zenit in 2010. "Like Rubin, Zenit are a great collective, and when some players are injured and they cannot make a contribution out on the pitch, they help those who replace them to give their best. I think our great start to the season shows again that we are a great team."
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