From Russia with Love

Celtic’s latest European adventure will take them to the far reaches of the Russian port on the Baltic Sea. Saint Petersburg is one of the most modern cities in Russia and is very different to the stereotypical Russian landscape. The city is home to many cultural and corporate landmarks.

But to many of the locals it is home to the one thing that matters above all else:

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A change in fortunes:

Its football club, Zenit, was bought by Gazprom in 2005 and has continually invested in some of the brightest talents on and off the field to try and bring success to the Russian giants.

The Blue and White of St.Petersburg have understood that the best orchestra is nothing without the conductor and Zenit have often found themselves investing heavily in their managerial cast to help take them to the next level.

Zenit managerial alumni:

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  • Dick Advocaat
  • Luciano Spalletti
  • Andre Villas-Boas
  • Mircea Lucescu
  • Robert Mancini (current)

To anyone who knows European football these at various points have been considered some of the hottest coaches and these high profile appointments have led to the most successful period in history for the “Sky Blues” in a very competitive Russian League Zenit have taken home 4 Premier league titles (2007,2010,2012,2015) and are probably most famous for their UEFA cup win over Celtics bitter rivals Rangers, which we will touch on more later.

456.6 Million: over a 10 year period, this is what Zenit have invested to create success and they have spent it on some of the hottest names in world football over the years.

Zenit player alumni:

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  • Hulk
  • Andrey Arshavin
  • Axel Witsel
  • Anatoly Tymoschuk
  • Salomon Rondon
  • Danny
  • Mateja Kezman

Again, those of you that have spent hours on FIFA or Football Manager, or generally love European football, will know all of these names. All have had fairly distinguished careers in the game, but unlike in the MLS, Zenit is not the last call on the road to retirement. That being said, it’s doubtful that any of them will have to worry about their bank balance ever again after signing up with Zenit.

UEFA Cup Winners

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Zenit lifted the 2008 Uefa cup against Celtic’s bitter rivals Rangers. An interesting sub-plot saw former Rangers manager Dick Advocaat in charge of the Russians. En route to  the final, Zenit had some very impressive results; none more so than the 5-1 aggregate demolition of Bayern Munich.

Zenit who were missing star striker and tournament top goal scorer Pavel Porgrebnyak showed their squad strength by being able to drop in Turkish International Fatih Tekke to lead the line.

Zenit star man and maybe the most influential player in the club’s history Andrey Arshavin was sublime and drifted into the half spaces to pick up the ball in dangerous areas throughout, causing Rangers trouble for the full 90 minutes.

Zenit eventually broke down Walter Smith’s dogged defensive set-up in the 72nd minute when Igor Denisov drifted through the heart of the Rangers defence and slotted home. This left the Ibrox side in a go for broke situation which saw the game sealed in added time when Fatih Tekke squared the ball for Konstanin Zyranov to slot home from a few yards out.

Zenit has not been able to repeat its Manchester success, but does boast a pretty convincing record in Europe overall, with a 52% win rate in non-domestic competition.

Ten years later

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Fast Forward 10 years and Zenit are now trying to bring back success under former Manchester City manager Roberto Mancini. The Italian has been given every chance to succeed with over 80 million pounds on transfers being sanctioned since his arrival.

Zenit has progressed in comparison to recent seasons and is currently 2nd in the Russian Premier League, trailing pacesetters Lokomotiv Moscow by 8 points. However, Zenit look to have their targets set on a European run. Their Europa League group stage form showed an impressive five wins out of six in a group containing Rosenborg, Real Sociedad and FK Vardar.

Tactically, Zenit tend to try and exploit the wider areas of the pitch. Mancini’s style is no secret and just as he did at Man City, Mancini likes to utilise the full width of the pitch in attacking phases. This allows space for the midfielders to control the centre. Further attacking support comes from the likes of Domenico Cristico hitting the byline. The marauding left-back is one of Zenit’s key attacking outlets.

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21 million pound midfielder Leandro Paredes is the heart of Zenit and everything creative tends to go through the young Argentine. Paredes is a cultured playmaker and has the ability to pick that killer pass in a variety of ranges. The ex-Boca Juniors and Roma star is also renowned for his set pieces, whether it is delivering assists or attempts on goal.

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Aleksandr Kokorin was recently linked with a move to Atletico Madrid, however the Russian remained at Zenit as Diego Costa returned to los rojiblancos. Kokorin will be a real handful for Celtic’s defence. His tricky movement and tendency to pull out into the wider areas can drag opposition centre halfs out of position, thus creating space for supporting midfielders. Kokorin also is known for his aerial presence which ties in well with Mancini’s demand for crosses into the box.

Overall, Zenit will be an extremely difficult opponent for Celtic. However, we all know that special things can happen on European nights under the floodlights at Celtic Park – just ask Barcelona! That leads us nicely into….

How can Celtic Win?

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The relationship between Mancini and Zenit has been very fractious of late with Mancini almost throwing himself at the Italian national team vacancy. This uneasiness may be the opening that Celtic will need to get through this tie. The Hoops will have to take the game to the Russians and get the Parkhead crowd onside to create an atmosphere as partisan and hostile as we know it can be. Whether Mancini and  Zenit are up to the mental side of the game, could be the key to Celtic’s success in this tie.

For Celtic to reach the next round Brendan Rodgers may have to make a slight tactical change to his normal domestic set-up. Dropping into a Defensive 4-5-1 shape would allow Celtic to win the ball quickly and look to spring into an attack by releasing the pace of the front 3 whilst containing the middle of the park when out of possession.

Rodgers may be tempted to spring the ‘odd’ surprise with his starting XI, but by-and-large it should look something like this:

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The biggest surprise here would be the addition of Odsonne Edouard to lead the line. Something just does not seem right with Moussa Dembele this season. Whether it’s the niggling injuries or the ongoing transfer speculation, the Frenchman’s form of last season has simply not been replicated. Edouard will offer more to Celtic through his higher work rate and better link-up play. This will allow Celtic to pressure Zenit when out of possession and will also allow for quick transitions that utilise the pace of Sinclair, Forrest, and Edouard himself. Zenit have doubts over the fitness of veteran defender Branislav Ivanovic and will be wary of the threat of Celtic’s lightning quick attackers..

There will be a real temptation for Celtic to throw in new signing Charly Musonda or even a half-fit Armstrong or Rogic and play with 3 behind the striker. But for this sort of game, at this stage of a knockout competition, you have to have an air of caution. For that reason, I would go for the industry and discipline that Eboue Kouassi offers in the middle of the pitch. This does remove an attacking threat but you don’t want to leave too many spaces for Zenit to drift into to dictate the play. Kouassi offers a defensive assurance that would be missing with Musonda or Rogic. Zenit is also an opponent Kouassi knows well from his time with Krasnodar.

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Maybe the biggest call comes at the back with Jack Hendry. This decision will likely be swayed by the following:

  • Jozo Simunovic has looked awful for the best part of a year now, thanks in part to injury. Whatever the reason for his erratic form, a match against Zenit is not the platform on which to risk a defender who was recently given the runaround by Connor Sammon.
  • Rodgers has shown confidence in younger players in Europe before. Ralston against PSG, for example. So why not give someone he clearly rated highly enough to bring to the club in the first place the opportunity to step up to the big stage and show that he is capable of being the Celtic centre back for the next 10 years.
  • Hendry looks the sort of player where the more pressure applied the better he performs and the stakes do not get any higher for most players than the bright lights and noise of a European night at Celtic Park.

Regardless of the XI that take to the field on Thursday, this is a huge occasion for Rodgers and his men. Celtic’s erstwhile ‘invincibles’ have begun to show some signs of vulnerability back in the SPFL. Stepping up a level with this fresh Russian challenge may be just what they need to galvanise them for the run-in to a potential domestic double-treble.

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