Luciano Spalletti has had a terrific start at FC Zenit St. Petersburg but that will count for nothing when the Russian Premier League leaders meet FC Unirea Urziceni with a play-off place at stake.
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Only 15 games into the Russian Premier League season and the question already being asked is when, not if, FC Zenit St. Petersburg will be crowned champions.
Luciano Spalletti's side have taken Russia by storm. Zenit are undefeated in all competitions, dropping just six points from a possible 45 in the league. They have conceded only six Premier-Liga goals and have amassed 16 more points than at the same stage last season under Dick Advocaat.
Saturday's 2-0 home win against defending champions FC Rubin Kazan further shortened the odds on Zenit claiming a third domestic crown. After four years at AS Roma, Spalletti has certainly hit the ground running but he is not allowing this early success to go to his players' heads – especially with the home leg of their UEFA Champions League third qualifying round tie against Romania's FC Unirea Urziceni looming.
"We had one target before the first leg: to win," said Spalletti, with the tie poised at 0-0. "The UEFA Champions League is a very difficult tournament. It shreds your nerves. But we are Zenit and we certainly have big ambitions. In a team of this strength the coach can only feel confidence."
Spalletti joined Zenit on a three-year contract last December, tasked with landing the club's first title since 2007 and taking them into the UEFA Champions League. Even Zenit's harshest critics have been impressed by the 51-year-old Italian's achievements so far. They went top on 6 May and have not looked back. Spalletti claimed his first trophy with victory over FC Sibir Novosibirsk in the Russian Cup two weeks later, and Zenit registered a club-record ninth straight league win at the weekend.
Ominously for Zenit's rivals, Tuesday's €22m signing of defender Bruno Alves from FC Porto followed the acquisition for a combined €17.5m, from Rubin and Udinese Calcio, of Russia forward Aleksandr Bukharov and Serbia defender Aleksandar Luković. It all suggests the team will only get stronger, especially when you consider how quickly the other recent arrivals have settled.
Tomáš Hubočan and Aleksandr Kerzhakov – scorer of both goals against Rubin – have both had an impact while 19-year-old Maksim Kanunnikov has thrived since stepping up from the reserves. Another striker, Danko Lazović, has needed more time to adapt yet there is no doubting the Serbian international's talent. And after spending much of last term on the bench, midfielder Roman Shirokov has returned to prominence to the extent there is talk of a Russia recall.
Aleksandar Luković, for one, is certain he has made the right move. "I've joined the strongest team in Russia and will work with a great coach," he said. "Zenit can succeed under Spalletti." Spalletti took Roma to the UEFA Champions League quarter-finals three seasons ago – when Zenit lifted the UEFA Cup. As at Roma, he has fostered a warm relationship with his players and the spirit in the camp will grow further should they get past Unirea and into the UEFA Champions League play-offs. Few in Russia expect anything else.