So it’s Zenit St. Petersburg in the last 32 then. I suppose it could’ve been worse.
We could have got tournament favourites Atletico Madrid, Arsenal or…..well that’s about it really.
I mean we never seem to get much luck with draws, do we?!
Three years ago – come February – it was Inter Milan.
They were actually managed by Roberto Mancini too back then. Go figure.
Nearer the time I’ll go more in-depth on Zenit.
By then the post-Christmas and New Year’s blues will have receded and the faintest hint of Spring should be in the air.
For now though, needless to say, this isn’t their first rodeo.
Over the past ten years, they have been Russian League Champions on four occasions last winning it in 2014/15 under the stewardship of André Villas-Boas who departed in the summer of 2016 shortly after guiding them to the Russian National Cup, the fourth in their history.
Their only European success was ten seasons ago on a glorious night in Manchester when ‘The Little General’ as he liked to call himself Dick Advocaat came back to haunt his ex-charges Rangers in the UEFA Cup Final. While his Zenit team tore it up on the pitch the hordes of Rangers supporters who had descended over the border were tearing it up in the streets as all-out chaos ensued. Undaunted Zenit collected the prize and hot-footed it back to their native city without being caught in the melee.
They are owned by Gazprombank, which just happen to be the third largest bank in Russia with assets of 5.122 Trillion in Russian Rubles.
God knows what that is in pounds sterling but I’ll wager it’s a lot. They are also state-owned. That should, of course, be illegal in the world of football ownership but hey it’s UEFA we’re talking about here. The chocolate fireguard of world sporting governing bodies.
In fairness unlike some of our other recent European opposition who are effectively also state-owned – yeah PSG I’m looking at you – they don’t throw money around like confetti and rub everyone’s, even Barcelona’s, face in it. That being said they still spent £75 million on players in the summer with eleven new arrivals as the newly appointed Mancini effectively rebuilt the squad with fifteen going out in the other direction.
The Italian manager took over from the ancient Romanian Mircea Lucescu in the summer.
He managed Shakhtar Donetsk for what seemed like forever and came up against us a few times in the Champions League.
I still remember well Massimo Donati’s injury-time winner putting us through to the last 16 of the Champions League in 2007.
I didn’t know anyone in the section I was sitting in that night over in the north stand but it still didn’t stop me trying to hug everyone within a 20-foot radius when the ball nestled in the back of the net. After the game, he told Gordon Strachan that we were lucky.
Wee Gordon told him to do one though used more colourful language than that.
Anyway, he guided them to a disappointing third in the league last season, eight points behind winners Spartak Moscow.
They also were eliminated at the last 32 stage of the Europa League and interestingly it was against the team we’ve just pipped for the last 32 spot, Anderlecht. The Belgians took a 2-0 lead over to Russia and were heading out after falling 3-0 behind before Isaac Kiese Thelin hit a 90th minute away goal and put them through to the last 16 and Lucescu on the dole. So that has to give us hope. Though I’d rather not leave it that late I’d take putting them out any which way I could find it.
So far this season they are having a pretty underwhelming season.
They again sit third, six points behind leaders Lokomotiv Moscow at the halfway point after 19 games.
They’ve won ten, drawn six and lost three so far though have only won two out of their last seven.
They struggled in the Europa qualifiers as well losing at home to Israel’s Bnei Yehuda and away to Dutch side FC Utrecht – remember them? On second thoughts let’s not go there. – though they pulled both ties out of the fire 2-1 on aggregate.
In the group stages though they’ve been kicking as and taking phone numbers winning five, drawing one and scoring a rampant 17 goals in the process. In their group was Rosenborg who we had previously eliminated from the Champions League qualifiers. The Norwegians lost 3-1 away to them but were the only team to take points off of them with a 1-1 home draw. So that’s a potential indicator by way of comparison to what we’re up against.
Their overall record in the Europa League is pretty impressive with 50 wins from 93 games and only 27 losses as well as 16 draws.
Ours lets just say isn’t so good but there’s little point in focusing on that.
As for Mancini, he is of course on the downward spiral of a once trophy-laden managerial career.
This is his third job in four years since getting his P45 from Manchester City.
That incredible last-second EPL title win back in 2012 seems like a very, very long time ago.
He lasted a year at Galatasaray, departing after finding out his second season summer budget had been cut and then had a wholly unsuccessful time back at Inter Milan, the club where he had built, his once stellar reputation and was expected to lead back to the good times. That lasted 21 months.
He’s now ended up in Russia which is a bit like an elephant’s graveyard for once highly regarded managers.
That aside, we’ll be underdogs when we visit the plush Krestovsky Stadium which is their new home, built of course for next summer’s World Cup finals. However, I don’t think it’s insurmountable. Though we will need to improve.
They are a possession-based team like ourselves so will have to adapt and hopefully serious lessons have been learned already.
Their stadium will be partially closed by the way.
This comes after UEFA decided to enforce partial closure due to Zenit fans unfurling a large banner showing support for Ratko Mladic aka ‘The Butcher of Bosnia’, a Bosnian Serb war criminal found guilty of mass genocide, during their group stage game against Macedonian side FK Vardar.
So safe to say a visit there is not for the faint-hearted.
Let’s also not forget they go on an extended break in the winter months actually starting this week and won’t return to domestic action until a fortnight after the second leg of our tie with them. Unlike here where overnight frost leads our domestic football commentators to look out the sheepskins and call for summer football the Russians genuinely would be risking life and limb turning out in their winter weather conditions where in some parts of the country temperatures can get 50 below and they get real snow and not the kind that thaws 20 minutes after landing. Whilst they do take part in late winter friendly tournaments nothing quite replicates the real thing.
That could perhaps be in our favour.
Though history shows it hasn’t affected them much before.
It’s a winnable tie but will take something special.
We’ve won in Russia in the past – even with Tony Mowbray at the helm – and progressed against teams from there on numerous occasions. So let’s hope there’s another excuse to get the old ‘From Russia with Love’ back page headline out of the closet and dusted off in time for the conclusion of the second leg on February the 22nd.
Paul Cassidy believes we can beat the Russians … but knows it will be a difficult game.