Lucescu’s Zenit unsurprisingly Dundalk’s biggest test

by Paul Little

This is a very rare and welcome occasion. Normally when running the rule over a side like Zenit St Petersburg ahead of a European fixture, it’s because they are facing one of our friends from across the water.

But today is different. Today, we look at the Russian giants ahead of a Europa League double header with Irish champions Dundalk.

 

David versus Goliath doesn’t quite capture it. If the gap in resources between the Lilywhites and the likes of their group mates AZ Alkmaar and Maccabi Tel Aviv is huge, then the chasm between Stephen Kenny’s men and the Gazprom-backed Russian giants is off the scale.

The fact that the financial largesse of the club’s owners has been curtailed in recent years certainly doesn’t change that.

FFP has certainly forced Zenit to refocus. They can no longer freely draw on the funding power of Gazprom; the fast track to the top of the European game has been largely closed off.

If the sale of striker Salomon Rondon to WBA last year to balance the FFP books hinted at it, then their summer dealings, which were notably conservative by recent standards, were clear proof.

In came centre back Ivan Novoseltsev from Rostov for €10 million, attacking midfielder Giuliano from Gremio for €7 million and Robert Mak from PAOK Saloniki for €3.5 million.

Considering they pulled in over €80 million from the sales of big names Hulk and Ezequiel Garay – an outlay of just over €20 million underlines the change in tack.

That said, perhaps their best bit of summer business was in attracting former Shakhtar Donetsk manager Mircea Lucescu to the Petrovskiy.

Alan Moore, an Irish columnist with top Russian sports website Championat, certainly thinks so. In a quick chat last week, Moore described the Romanian as “a top coach who has won everywhere he’s gone.”

He added that Lucescu “has an excellent staff at Zenit, a great set of players and most importantly, the full backing of the board. And crucially, he wants to be there.”

That desire will doubtless be welcomed by all at the club, given how his predecessor Andres Villas Boas seemed to see the job as something of a prison sentence.

Importantly, says Moore, given his 14 years in Ukraine, “Lucescu will have an excellent understanding of the politics and games to play” in this part of the football world. Put simply, he’s a great fit.

After a sticky start to the season (Zenit drew both of their opening league games 0-0), Lucescu’s charges are unbeaten in their 13 domestic and European fixtures this term, scoring 36 goals in their last 11 matches.

 

Moore has certainly been impressed, noting how Lucescu has built on AVB’s solid defence and has made the side more aggressive.

The new manager has an array of Russian and international talent (the squad boasts 17 current full internationals) at his disposal.

With Russia’s two best forwards in Artyom Dzyuba and Aleksandr Kokorin on the books, not to mention the talents of Danny, Giuliano, Axel Witsel, Javi Garcia and Robert Mak, it’s no surprise that Zenit have a team confident of outscoring almost anyone – certainly in Russia.

Summer signing Giuliano has certainly caught the eye. The attacking midfielder has eased the pain of losing Hulk, scoring eight goals and registering seven assists in his nine appearances this season.

His early season form means he’s one Dundalk will have to watch closely, but while Moore has been impressed, he believes that the Brazilian’s lack of physicality is something Stephen Kenny can focus on.

Three to keep an eye on this Thursday for Zenit-watcher Moore are Slovakian schemer Robert Mak, the solid Igor Smolnikov and ex-Juve player Domenico Criscito.

The Italian defender is a left-footed wonder with bags of pace. He’s very solid and loves a bit of a ruck as well! Mak probes and prompts and increasingly makes Zenit tick, while adventurous full-back Smolnikov could do damage down the right flank.

Hope for Dundalk? Moore isn’t overly optimistic for their chances, but feels that Zenit are something of a work in progress “and are still a little unbalanced between defence and attack, so there may well be opportunities for Dundalk to hurt them in the transitions.”

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