Not since 2008 have Zenit Saint Petersburg had a chance to prove their worth to the English, but five years on, and following that historic victory over Manchester United back in that momentous year of 2008, the Russian champions have a chance to defeat Manchester’s own great rivals.
Liverpool, a club which has been in decline for the past few years now, may not be the force it once was, but you will be hard pushed to find any team who relishes playing against the patriotic support of the Liverpudlians.
But for Zenit it won’t just be chance to prove themselves to the English, but to Europe overall. After having to go through scandal after scandal in their Champions League campaign, a mere 7 points were amassed, just enough for a Europa League slot. But a new year brings new hope, and after a calm winters break, the team is ready to come roaring back into action.
The Europa League may not quite have the glitz and glamour that the Champions League has, it’s still a tournament which attracts almost as much as attention, and with teams such as current European Champions Chelsea competing, the status of the so called ugly sister of the Champions League is only rising.
While many ties in the last 32 catch the eye, none more so does than this one, which pits two former UEFA Cup winners together and will indicate, just how good this current Zenit team really is.
Right at the beginning of September, optimism was rife amongst the Zenit faithful. After years of transfer disappointment, finally big time players found themselves making the trip to Russia’s cultural capital Saint Petersburg. But the only thing that Hulk and Axel Witsel achieved in doing was putting the Zenit old boys backs up.
Both Igor Denisov and Alexander Kerzhakov led an in club revolt, a situation that was resolved too late to rescue the Champions League campaign that fell apart to pieces right before our very eyes. Just 3 points from the first 4 games killed off any hopes of a repeat of last season’s trip to the playoffs, but then we just began to see the true Zenit character.
2-0 down in the home game to Malaga, grit and determination managed to save the game in claiming a 2-2 draw, and on the last matchday away to already qualified AC Milan, a lone Danny goal along with resilient defending meant that Zenit claimed their first away win in Europe for 2 years and in doing so, squeezing into the Europa League playoffs at the expense of Belgians Anderlecht.
While maybe some fans may still have turned their nose up at Europa League football, that all changed when the draw for the last 32 was made.
You can understand why noses may have been turned up at first though. After competing shoulder to shoulder with clubs with the status such as Milan, the prospect of playing against teams which you may have never even of heard of, doesn’t seem too attractive. But as soon as Liverpool were drawn out of the hat, all of a sudden the Europa League didn’t seem so bad after all.
A tie that wouldn’t look out of place in the Champions League, it gives Zenit the opportunity to prove that the typical effectiveness of British teams can be defeated by real style. And if the winner is to be determined by style, then there will be only one winner.
While the Russians can boast up to 4 or 5 players of world class level, Liverpool can claim just the two, midfield legend Steven Gerrard and the ever controversial Luis Suarez.
English football has seen quite a few drastic changes in the last few years, not least with the overnight growth of Manchester City.
Traditional underperformers Tottenham Hotspur are also now pushing for the top spots, but with clubs rising, some have to fall. And that fall guy is the 5 times European champions Liverpool, a club which was a Champions League fixture just a few years back. But times have changed, and even just qualifying for the Europa League is regarded a success for England’s fallen giant.
That’s not to say they always treat the competition with respect that is. Almost always, a second string is sent out on the field, and the English media happily slam the competition at any given moment. But everyone in England is well aware that the visit of Zenit is not to be treated lightly. While it is still unclear what kind of team Liverpool will send to Russia and for the game in England, fans at least seem to be aware of the task at hand.
I personally know many Liverpool fans, and after them being able to watch Zenit’s games in the Champions League for the past few years, they’re giving it a run for their money. The transfer of Hulk last summer particularly captured headlines in England and got everyone talking, but if many thought that only happened because of the money, the perfect opportunity to prove that wrong has arrived.
Hulk may be still finding his feet in Zenit, but the fact that he can change the game immediately with just letting rip with his ferociously powerful shot hasn’t changed. And a Liverpool defence, that doesn’t always look the most solid, will have to be fully switched on for the full 180 minutes of the tie.
But while English and Liverpool fans may still know more about Hulk himself than Zenit, it’s all about to change. Zenit look fresh and ready to go after two successful training camps in Dubai and Turkey, and while just two reasonably low key signings were made, with the purchases of young Serbian prospect Milan Rodic and Portuguese international Neto, incidentally both defenders, fans have reason to be confident.
The scandal with Denisov and Kerzhakov appears to be finally put to bed, and with Danny now fully fit, Zenit should be firing on all cylinders. Liverpool themselves haven’t been going through their worst form recently, but their over reliance on Gerrard and Suarez surely has to come back and bite them at some point.
The priority however, will be without a doubt, not conceding at home. The dodgy record on the road in Europe in the past couple of seasons signals that only a clean sheet and at least a 2-0 win at Petrovsky will fit the bill.
I’m sure even the most ardent of Liverpool supporters won’t be able to deny just how intimidating the Zenit fans are when watching the game in Saint Petersburg, and it’s the perfect opportunity to see the ever rising strength of Zenit and just how quickly Liverpool are fading away from the European scene. Expect drama.
Written by Shaun Nicolaides
Follow Shaun on Twitter @zenitfan93
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