Last Thursday night, Zenit St Petersburg, Russia’s most powerful club (on paper anyways) were knocked out of the Europa League by RB Leipzig. With their exit went their last hope of silverware this season – the Gazprom fuelled side are surely out of the running in the league with eight games left to play and suffered an early exit from the Russian Cup in September.
Back in the summer as Roberto Mancini took over from Mircea Lucescu as manager and as the club once again heavily outspent its domestic rivals in bolstering its squad (according to www.transfermarkt.co.uk, the club’s net spend was in the region of €80 million), Zenit were once again most people’s favourites to win the Russian Premier League.
But a season that started positively looks like ending in disappointment – again. The Zenitchiki drew a trophy blank last season, and although they won the Russian Cup in 2015-16, they’ve not won the league since 2014-15 and have missed out on a Champions League spot two seasons in a row.
But Mancini’s men did start this season in impressive form, winning seven of their first ten league games and only suffering their first defeat in mid-October – their 13th game of the season.
But that was the beginning of a dismal run that saw them fail to register a win in five games, losing twice. Their form has stuttered since then, and although they’ve only lost once more since, draws, nine in total from their 22 games, have derailed their title hopes.
Back to back 0-0 draws in their two games since the resumption of hostilities after the long Russian winter break serve to underline their problems, leaving them ten points behind surprise leaders Lokomotiv Moscow.
Alan Moore, host of Capital Sports on Capital FM Moscow, puts Zenit’s underwhelming season down to “poor purchases, poor management and a lack of focus.” And its Mancini who draws the heaviest criticism from Moore:
I believe he came thinking Zenit would steamroller the league. But they’ve lacked the players and the teamwork to make it happen. Much of that’s on Mancini’s head. He’s failed, simple as that.
Was it a case of Mancini having to get used to new surroundings and manage a transitionary period? “I think it’s more down to his arrogance,” says Moore. “He alienated a lot of media and players, thought it would be easier than it is and has been simply outfought by a resurgent Lokomotiv and CSKA Moscow, last year’s champions.”
Zenit have the best defensive record in the league, conceding just 13 goals in their 22 league games. Young centre half Emanuel Mammana, a €16 million recruit from Lyon, has impressed, as has defensive screen Leandro Paredes, who joined from Roma for €23 million.
But it’s at the other end of the field where they’ve struggled. Zenit have the lowest goals scored tally (31) in the top five, and they’ve been too reliant on the resurgent Aleksandr Kokorin, the club’s top scorer with ten.
And that over-reliance looks set to be exposed as injury was added to insult in Thursday night’s Europa League exit, as the 26-year-old-striker tore knee ligaments and looks set to miss the rest of the season and possibly the World Cup as well.
Zenit currently sit fifth, outside of the European places – but are only five points behind second placed Spartak Moscow with a game in hand.
However, while snatching a Champions League place is not entirely beyond the realms of possibility, Moore feels that a place in the Europa League is the best they can hope for.
Spartak, CSKA and Krasnodar will not yield ground easily in the run in.
So where does this leave Roberto Mancini? “I think he’ll go in the summer,” says Russian football expert Moore.
I’m sure he’ll have a few offers. And he recently let it be known that Australia approached him to take on their World Cup squad, which didn’t go down well here. I’d also add that the club would probably be happy to let him wander away.