After the much celebrated and long awaited arrivals of superstars Hulk and Axel Witsel, Zenit shot to the European headlines, for all the right reasons. Just over a month later, Zenit are once again hitting the headlines, but this time for all the wrong ones. After two matchdays in the Champions League the Russian champions lay bottom of their group without a point to their name, and with just 2 wins from their last 7 games in all competitions.
After their glamorous signings, this is the complete opposite to what everyone expected, but just maybe the big money splashed out has completely backfired.
Despite all of Zenit’s success in the past few years, and there’s been a lot of it, signing new players, or rather the lack of it, has constantly frustrated Zenit supporters. Looking back at the past 2 or 3 years, you can’t really find many new signings of note, apart from Italian international left back Domenico Criscito, who since signing in the summer of last year from Genoa has proven an instant hit. But the overall unwillingness to part with any cash hasn’t exactly hindered Zenit’s success, both on the Russian and European stage.
Ever since Luciano Spalletti has taken over at the helm, at the start of 2010, the trophies have been rolling in. Instant success was demanded by the highly ambitious Zenit board and that is exactly what happened, with Zenit winning both the Russian Cup and Russian Championship in Spalletti’s first year in charge, as well as a perfect winning record in the Europa League group stages.
In 2011 there was no sign of the success stopping any time soon, claiming the Russian Super Cup, and maybe most importantly of all, qualifying for the last 16 of the Champions League for the first time in Zenit’s history. All of that achieved with virtually the same team since Spalletti took over, and in fact, the main core and backbone of the team hasn’t changed since Zenit won the UEFA Cup way back in 2008.
There’s an old saying: “If it isn’t broke, don’t mend it.” It’s a saying that has obviously stuck with Zenit’s board of directors for the past few years, and given the results which have been attained; it’s been stuck with them for good reason. Supporters however have never made any bones about how many new players are wanted in Saint Petersburg despite all the success, and finally this summer big name signings were made as we all know.
Around the region of £80 million was spent on Hulk and Witsel combined together, and all of a sudden, the mood amongst Zenit fans rose to a new level, a new feeling that now they had finally taken their rightful place amongst Europe’s elite. But what has followed since has proven anything but, and that maybe, they should have just been content with what they already had. As we know, recents results are nothing more than thoroughly disappointing, but the main reason for this is not because of what’s happening on the pitch itself.
As soon as Hulk was signed for big money, everyone was well aware that his contract would include a very tasty salary. But while this doesn’t seem to have bothered fans much, it’s had a profound effect within the team, and a disastrous effect at that. Just before a game in Samara against Krylya Sovetov, anarchy in the Zenit camp occurred.
The team was coming off the back of a shock 3-0 defeat to Malaga in the Champions League, and under pressure to prove to everyone that this result was just a fluke. But midfield lynchpin Igor Denisov took it upon himself to refuse to play in the game, a decision that was unclear to all at the time.
Zenit still managed to fight their way to a hard earned 2-2 draw in the game, but soon after the game, the situation within the club worsened. Denisov was subsequently sent to train only with the youth team, and with him shockingly also went key striker Alexander Kerzhakov. This surprised all fans, but everything soon came clear.
Following the big money signing of Hulk in particular, certain members of the Zenit team weren’t exactly too happy with the amount of money he was going to be paid, and Denisov himself asked to have a significant wage increase to his already very high salary. After this was declined, he subsequently refused to play in the game in Samara and still to this day is stuck with the youth team, apparently unwilling to apologise for his actions.
While Kerzhakov has now returned to the main team, the unrest in the Zenit camp has only hampered results on the pitch, which has seen the club lose its 4 year unbeaten home run in Europe and even slip as low as 7th in the Russian league, although the champions now lay in 4th.
Although Hulk himself can’t exactly be blamed for Zenit’s situation, in fact since signing he has quite comfortably been Zenit’s best player, the Zenit board must surely have foreseen such a situation, that Zenit’s old guard would have kicked up a fuss that the new kid on the block suddenly has more value put upon him than the players who have been there for the majority or the whole of their careers.
In any case, it’s a situation that has to be resolved – and fast. The international break has come just at the right time for as far as Zenit are concerned, and it’s an ideal opportunity for all the problems inside the club to be resolved. In just 2 weeks a massive and probably deciding Champions League match at home to Anderlecht awaits, as well as games in the Russian league of course, and Zenit have to keep winning constantly to stay in touch with leaders Anzhi.
Zenit have all the talent within the squad to once again return to winning games again, but as we constantly see in sport, the psychological side of things is easily the most important.
The pressure now lies more than ever on coach Spalletti to get the team’s mind only about issues on the pitch, rather than issues off it, and in particular the situation with Denisov has to be solved fast – but that seems to rest on just Denisov himself.
Written by Shaun Nicolaides
Follow him on Twitter @zenitfan93
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