Champions League Opposition Preview – Zenit

After Gent’s impressive start to life in the Champions League after winning their maiden domestic league last season they travel to Russia for their second taste of the elite European competition. As far as European football goes it doesn’t get much more difficult than a trip to the east and in Zenit they face one of Russia’s principle teams.

We spoke to Thomas Giles, who is part of the Russian Football News team gave us the low down on Gent’s opponents. Based in Birmingham, Thomas’ love of Russian football stems from his time doing a university degree, living in St Petersburg and following Zenit during that spell.

Zenit have started the season poorly by their high standards. They are currently in third place, six points behind leaders CSKA Moscow, as they look to defend the title they won so convincingly last year. They initially started well, winning their first three games. However, they lost to recently promoted Krylya Sovietov just before the international break when chaos suddenly ensued.

There were rumours that manager Andre Villas Boas had a meeting with the club’s hierarchy and that the club were going to terminate his contract which finishes at the end of this 2015/16 season.

However, before last weekend’s game against title rivals CSKA Moscow, Villas Boas announced that he would be leaving Zenit at the end of the season having failed to come to an agreement on a new contract with the board. This hardly came as a surprise as he has constantly complained about the restrictions on foreign players in the Russian Premier League and the way the league is organised. It remains to be seen if this rather predictable news of AVB’s departure will cause Zenit’s season to implode.

Zenit tend to play a 4-2-3-1 with the wide players, usually Hulk and Oleg Shatov, playing on the seemingly wrong side and cutting inside onto their strongest foot. This 4-2-3-1 formation therefore turns into a 4-3-3 when they attack. There are question marks over their central defence and the team has been criticised for the lack of goals despite their array of attacking talent. The team enjoy playing a possession based game which is effective domestically as they are one of the superior teams. However, when faced with better opposition it will be interesting to see how they cope without the ball.

The Blue, White and Navys will be able to play their strongest team in the Champions League as there are no foreign player restrictions unlike in their domestic league where the 6+5 rule is enforced. This of course is a huge advantage for Zenit as in the Russian Premier League they often find some of their best players on the bench.

Zenit were knocked out in the group stages in last year’s tournament despite being in a rather poor group (Monaco, Bayer Leverkusen and Benfica) and will be desperate to make sure that doesn’t happen again. This season’s Group H seems to be very similar to the group Zenit were in last year and they should learn from their mistakes and qualify from the group.

Witsel is no stranger to opponents Gent.

Witsel is no stranger to opponents Gent.

Zenit St. Petersburg are one of those clubs that have been a dark horse for a number of years and have never made any waves in Champions League football. Despite the vast amount of wealth at their disposal which has allowed them to buy superstars such as Hulk and Axel Witsel they always seem to struggle in Europe’s top competition and play more as a team of individuals rather than a collective.

2015/2016 could have been the season where they really pushed on in the Champions League after the great disappointments of recent seasons but with the chaos currently surrounding the club I can see another disappointing season. They will do well to get to the quarter final but they must win Group H in order to avoid a last 16 match with a European giant.

Prediction: 2nd in Group H. Knocked out in the last 16.

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