Why Zenit lose at home and win in Europe

Zenit are flying high in the UEFA Champions League but their Russian title defence is foundering. Former captain Aleksei Igonin assesses what is going right (and wrong).

Zenit forwards Hulk and Artem Dzyuba
Zenit forwards Hulk and Artem Dzyuba ©Getty Images

Zenit's preparations for the second half of the season began on Monday and for only the third time they start the new year with a UEFA Champions League tie to look forward to – against Benfica next month. The Russian title holders have struggled on the domestic front, though, and will resume their title defence seven points behind leaders CSKA Moskva.

Former skipper Aleksei Igonin assesses the campaign so far.

Zenit's European success this season is in marked contrast with their domestic struggles – 18 games in, they lie fifth in the Russian top flight.

Zenit have put a lot of effort into the Champions League, putting in some great performances when they are in the mood. Five wins in a group stage is a great result. But the tactics Zenit use in the UEFA Champions League, the defensive focus, are not applicable to the Russian league.

The fans and the coach will not allow the players to play as underdogs against mid-table teams. However, Zenit are not great when they are favourites. Weaker teams have learned how to set up defensively and play counterattacking football, especially at the Petrovski.

©UEFA.com

Summer signing Artem Dzyuba scored six goals in the group stage, more than anyone but Cristiano Ronaldo and Robert Lewandowski.

There were doubts Dzyuba would fit in. He didn't really succeed at Spartak Moskva, but his current goalscoring form is just what Zenit need. It's great to see a Russian player among Europe's top marksmen.

Dzyuba is basically Zenit's only out-and-out striker. Hulk goes up front only if there's no way out and tactics force him to. It doesn't happen much.

Aleksei Igonin in action in 2007
Aleksei Igonin in action in 2007©Getty Images

Zenit are in the round of 16 for the third time, hoping to do better than their previous appearances in 2012 and 2014.

The group stage is one thing, the knockouts are a completely different story. Anything can happen. The weather conditions will be harsh for Benfica's players in St Petersburg. Zenit have a big chance, but it's hard to assess what the team are really capable of.

Zenit need to meet tough opponents like this more often. We often overestimate our own strength when we watch ourselves against weaker domestic sides. It would be good for Zenit to take on more of Europe's bigger teams, so then we can get a true measure of Russia's football development.

European Cup winners who belied domestic problems
Aston Villa – 1981/82, finished 11th (out of 22) in England
Bayern München – 1974/75, 10th (18) in Germany

Aleksei Igonin, 39, made 155 appearances for Zenit between 1995 and 2003. He was talking to Dmitri Rogovitski.