Once again a season full of hope for Russian clubs in the UEFA Champions League has ended prematurely.
While not a great deal was expected of FC Spartak Moskva, the same cannot be said about FC Zenit St Petersburg. Luciano Spalletti's side would have expected at least to make the quarter-finals, given the quality of players at their disposal. However, with one game left, the Russian champions do not seem to have lived up to their potential.
Expectations were raised once it emerged Zenit had been given a reasonable draw, including an AC Milan team in transition, RSC Anderlecht and competition debutants Málaga CF. Zenit, though, have never recovered from an awful start at La Rosaleda, when they were 2-0 down inside 13 minutes.
Starting poorly would become a recurring theme for Zenit, especially at home. In their matches at the Stadion Petrovski against Milan and Málaga, they found themselves trailing by that same 2-0 scoreline after a quarter of an hour. Although they improved during the course of both encounters, they had already left themselves far too much to do.
For a side that has dominated Russian football over the last two years, there has been a distinct shortage of confidence and cohesion throughout this UEFA Champions League campaign. Hulk and Axel Witsel were bought to try and make a difference but, in the short term at least, it has not paid off. The team have seemingly lacked the continuity that has become customary under Spalletti.
Defensively, Zenit have met all manner of problems in the competition. They have conceded nine goals in five games, keeping just one clean sheet in the process. Somewhat more surprisingly, they have also found it tough going in attack, finding the net a mere five times.
Russia striker Aleksandr Kerzhakov is proving to be something of an enigma for his club. Aside from a disappointing UEFA EURO 2012, the 29-year-old has generally been excellent for his country. However, a record of one goal in 11 UEFA Champions League outings suggests he is struggling to find his feet in Europe's premier club competition. In the majority of their fixtures, Zenit have had little difficulty in creating chances – the problem has been converting them.
It will be back to the drawing board for Spalletti, whose charges could still qualify for the UEFA Europa League. However, in the last three years Zenit have only managed to reach the knockout stages of the elite event on one occasion. For a club with such an array of talent, that statistic must be a concern.
The opinions expressed here are the writer's own and not those of UEFA.
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