On Saturday evening, Zenit St. Petersburg continued their unstoppable march towards the Russian title.
Luciano Spalletti’s side overcame a stern test in the form of flourishing Rostov, tasting another success on the ground where they secured the Russian Cup two months back.
After vanquishing both Spartak and CSKA Moscow at their Olimp-2 stadium, I hoped to see some study resistance from Selmashi.
A 3-2 loss at Dinamo Moscow acted as precursor to this true acid-test: a defeat characterised by daft defensive lapses, and two moments of individual genius from Roman Adamov and Igor Lebendenko.
The latter has thoroughly impressed this season, teaming superbly with Dušan Anđelković down the left. Another to have caught the eye, Bosnia’s Mersudin Ahmetović, settled for a spot on the bench here.
Unsurprisingly, the home side sought to attack down that aforementioned potent flank.
The tactic involved Lebedenko cutting inside on his right-foot, carrying it fastly but aimlessly towards the right-channel, thus disguising the return ball to the Serb’s overlap.
From there, the ball was pumped into the box, where Adamov offered aerial presence. Rostov were all too keen to use their striker’s forehead, and expended too many touches on lumps upfield.
This was a shame as Rostov started graciously from the back, goalkeeper Anton Amelchenko – one of two Belarussian custodians on show – passing to whoever showed first.
With a counter-attacking Zenit expending just as much energy in their retreats, Adamov was constantly thwarted. In frustration, he dropped further to get and work the ball, making it difficult for Rostov to leave their own half.
Zenit thus saw a lot of play for a side looking to play on the break, and had various options at the ready when launching. The most-utilised was Rosina, attacking the space Anđelković abandoned.
Equally handy and hungry were Shirokov and Faizulin, the pair of whom drove with the ball centrally: the former making energetic runs, albeit ones that often resulted in wayward shots, and Faizulin seeking to place a through-pass.
Last but not least was Danny. Stationed on the left-flank, the Portuguese international played with a canniness all too rare in the Russian top-flight.
With Anđelković lunging forwards at will, Cherkes and the centre-backs were forced to remain deep, shifting across to contain Rosina’s enthusiastic shuttles.
However, Danny’s presence meant Cherkes had one eye on the chalk too, hence how Anyukov, Shirokov and Rosina initially engineered lots from the other side.
To be fair to Cherkes, he had his side of the pitch closed down. Resultantly, Danny drifted infield to shake off the shackles, taking advantage of Faizulin’s more withdrawn presence.
This ploy attempted to lure one of Rostov’s defensive-midfielders from Zenit’s final-third – positioning that actually handicapped Rostov as Adamov, Akimov and Lebedenko were isolated and in need of loose-ball winning support.
Build-up play was especially intricate from the away side, but occasionally the hosts looked inspired in their concoctions too.
Alas, neither side was able to magic end-product with the Jabulani ball – one which Amelchenko particularly struggled with.
However, team talks, tactics and scorelines were altered in first-half injury time. Rosina shimmied behind the left-back to square across the six-yard-box. Like clockwork, in slid Kerzhakov.
Instantly, Rostov’s second-half gameplan was amended. Off went the stupendously ineffective Akimov, replaced by Aleksandr Pavlenko.
The on-loan Spartak man enabled coach Oleh Protasov to field a 4-2-3-1, but oddly, he stuck by the xmas-tree.
Rostov attacked with more gusto – still defending with similar energy – but ultimately this led to their downfall.
Spalletti positioned the St. Petersburg banks deeper; allowing Danny to bring for himself rather than receiving it in more advanced/swamped territory. He now had a greater range of passing and angles at his disposal.
Rostov were still keen to use Adamov’s verticality though, lively bobbers Lebedenko and Pavlenko hovering nearby to collect the knock-downs.
However, Meira and Lombaerts marshalled him superbly, forcing dwells on the ball and inviting Zenit to position two Chinese and Berlin rivalling walls.
One such Adamov hold in a cul-de-sac led to Zenit’s second-goal. A rob and swift early scoop to the D found Danny darting there through a ring of four blue shirts. The trap was instant; the half-volley equally speedy and sublime.
Hereafter, the game petered out somewhat, save for Alexandru Gaţcan joining Shirokov in the erratic shooting stakes, and Zenit becoming overly baroque in their one-touch passing moves.
Perhaps the Jabulani was culpable; Lebedenko, for one, is usually lethal from range. Tellingly, Rostov curled all centrally-located free-kicks towards the left-hand side of the box for an assisting header sideways rather than direct shots.
Seeking to fully stifle resurgence, Spalletti brought Ionov in to play as a traditional, Anđelković-corking right-winger.
For all of Rosina’s toil on the right, the left-footer veers often inside: with Ionov, Spalletti had someone to permanently pin the Serb back.
At last, Rostov opted to go 4-2-3-1, and immediately looked more dangerous. Dragan Blatnjak offered presence and hunger on the right, while the floaty Ahmetović added more grace in the striking position.
Late on, relatively inconsequential goals were exchanged. Faizulin’s resembled Danny’s, and epitomised Zenit’s superior technical ability. Lebedenko won and converted a – cheap – penalty after nutmegging Anyukov and drawing a tug.
Zenit maintain their seemingly insurmountable nine-point lead; one which briefly escalated to 12 points, this game kicking off half-hour before Rubin’s defeat of Dinamo Moscow.
Slap-bang at the season’s halfway point, the pair face-off next weekend. Zenit might be hamstrung by a tricky midweek Champions League visit to Bucharest though. Liga I silver-medallists Unirea Urziceni await.
Defeat drops Rostov to 7th spot, but they only shy from the Europa League spots courtesy of weak goal difference. Scoring remain a problem, as does an indifferent home record of four wins and losses apiece.