In the midst of all my Premier League previews, today I managed to take some time out to catch some football from the Russian Premier League for the very first time. Now, my exposure to the league would have been pretty much non-existent, albeit seeing Zenit St Petersburg winning the UEFA Cup in 2008 and taking part in the following season of the Champions League, similarly with their opponents today Rubin Kazan who shocked us all in the Champions League last season by beating Barcelona 2-1 at the Camp Nou.
The Guardian’s very own brain in a jar, Jonathan Wilson wrote a fantastic preview to the game this week – which focused on Zenit’s re-birth under former Roma coach Luciano Spaletti. Wilson says: “They have been relentless of late, unbeaten since Luciano Spalletti took charge in December – their last defeat, in fact, came against FK Moskva on 31 October – and Saturday’s 3-1 win at Rostov was their eighth in a row in the league.”
And today, Zenit secured their nine league win in a row and stretch their unbeaten run under Spalletti to 20 games. In his first season in charge of Zenit, the bar has already been set very high for Spalletti, with the board requiring him to win the Russian Premier League title, the Russian Cup [already secure, their first since 1999], along with making it to the group stages of the Champions League.
In the opening stages of the game the tackles were flying in left, right and centre from both sides, with Kazan coming off the worse as they were forced to make an early change – defender Lasha Salukvadze went off injured after just two minutes with Yevgeni Balyaikin coming on his place. As tackles kept flying in, both sides look to be very evenly matched, you would be hard-pressed to say that there was a seven point gap separating them in the league right throughout the first-half – that was of course was before Zenit scored in the injury time.
It was counter-attacking football at its best – Danny with a pacing run down the left wing before crossing it into the box to Zyryanov, who had his shot saved by Ryzhikov in the Rubin goal, the rebounding shot fell to Kerzhakov who slotted the ball into the back of the net making it 1-0 at half-time. Similarly to his time in charge of Roma, Spalletti is deploying a strikerless 4-6-0 formation and it is clearly paying dividends with the Russian side.
The second-half was a completely different affair with Zenit dominated the whole game, but by no means did they rest on their one goal lead, rather the opposite, always looking for a break down the wings, while also managing to keep Rubin at bay who didn’t even manage a single shot on target in the second-half. Former Newcastle United and Wolfsburg striker came on to make his debut, but to no avail because there was simply no supply going his way such was Zenit’s dominance.
It was in the 65th minute that Zenit wrapped up the game, and what could very well be the end to the title race also. Once again down that left wing, this time is was Hubočan whose insightful shot caught the leagues tightest defence [three goals conceded before today] napping to find Kerzhakov, the striker got in behind the defender to head a simple finish into the corner of Ryzhikov’s net for his second goal of the game.
Speaking after the game Rubin coach Gurban Berdiýew summed it up succinctly: “Zenit deserved victory. They played well, compact and more effective in attack. The hallmark of Spalletti.” Having won back to back titles in the last two seasons today looked to be Rubin surrendering their crown; this looks as if it could well be Zenit’s year under their Italian coach.
There you have my very first experience of Russian football, it certainly made for good afternoon of viewing, and I was very impressed with what I saw, more so from Spalletti’s Zenit side. Today, I think was just an appetiser for me because it has left me wanting much, much more. I’ve been informed that there is a very big derby match taking place tomorrow at 4pm, between the two Moscow sides – Spartak and CSKA – you certainly wouldn’t want to miss that for the world, I for one will be checking in again and I urge you to do likewise.