FC Zenit have started the new season in hungry mood after missing out on the Russian title last term, with their 8-1 defeat of FC Torpedo Moskva a sure sign that André Villas-Boas's men are eager to impress both at home and abroad.
The St Petersburg side were pipped to the championship crown on the final day of the 2013/14 season, when PFC CSKA Moskva surged to glory thanks to a run of ten consecutive wins. It was a heartbreaking end to the campaign for the Sine-belo-golubye, but they look determined to erase the memory with an adventurous approach this time around.
That looked clear enough in a 4-0 victory at FC Arsenal Tula on the opening day of the domestic season, yet even better was to come, with promoted Torpedo blown away on Saturday as José Rondón, Hulk and Aleksandr Kerzhakov all plundered doubles. Zenit stand top of the table on goal difference as a result, and the signs are that they are flourishing under their Portuguese coach.
"I do not agree that the Russian mentality or Russian soul can be an obstacle to my work," said the former FC Porto, Chelsea FC and Tottenham Hotspur FC tactician when he replaced Luciano Spalletti in March. "It even can help. Look at St Petersburg – I saw it for the first time and was really impressed.
The city was built by a great man, Peter the Great. I want to do for my team what he did for the city."
Hailed for his "energy and ability to see things differently" by club president Aleksandr Dyukov, Villas-Boas came to Russia with a point to prove after his Tottenham reign was cut short last December. He promptly won his first six games in charge, and although the title ultimately slipped out of Zenit's grasp, the players have taken to his methods.
"I worked with Villas-Boas at Porto, and now I'm happy working with him in a new team," explained Hulk. "I can tell that he has revived Zenit.
Every day we understand better what we have to do and what the coach wants from us."
Assistant coach Sergei Semak has been won over too: "André is a workaholic. He's the first to arrive at our training centre and the last to leave. He analyses lots of information and prepares training sessions in detail. At first, he had many questions about our domestic rivals and the Russian mentality. But he figured it out very soon."
The 36-year-old's focus will soon be falling on R. Standard de Liège, with Zenit due to meet the Belgian outfit in the UEFA Champions League play-offs on 19 and 26 August. The 2008 UEFA Cup winners saw off AEL Limassol FC in the third qualifying round, and they are keen to seal a group stage spot after reaching the round of 16 last season.
"[Standard] are a club with a great history and tradition, one of the strongest in Belgium," said Villas-Boas. "I think [Nicolas] Lombaerts and [Axel] Witsel will be particularly happy to play against them – especially Axel, as this is his former club and it's clear what it means to him.
"We can't afford to be relaxed in our upcoming matches. Both teams want to reach the Champions League group stage and this ambition will push us forward. Let's hope two great games await us."
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