That Zenit St. Petersburg have played their best football of the season in the UEFA Champions League isn’t an accident.
After regaining the Russian Premier League title in the spring Zenit inked playmaker Danny to a new contract and signed striker Artyom Dzyuba from Spartak Moscow and Artur Yusupov from Dinamo Moscow—transactions geared to both ensuring continued domestic success and facilitating a long-anticipated European breakthrough.
Given the country’s foreign content quota Zenit required additional, capable Russian players, especially if the Champions League was going to be prioritized for the big-money, non-Russian contingent. Which is exactly what has transpired.
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When asked about Hulk’s absence from his starting line-up on Saturday at home to Ural, manager Andre Villas-Boas admitted the Brazilian was being saved for Tuesday’s Champions League encounter with Valencia.
“We decided to rotate the foreign players as we have done before with [Axel] Witsel, [Domenico] Mimo [Criscito] and Danny,” he said. “We thought we could rest him before the match with Valencia.”
Villas-Boas’ rotation policy, and the resulting freshness in his squad, has already paid off for the club, which earlier this month became just one of three teams in the group stage to qualify for the Round of 16—something they’ve done just twice since the breakup of the Soviet Union. (They reached the old second round of the European Cup as Zenit Leningrad in 1985.)
On Matchday Four they completed an impressive double over Ligue 1 contenders Lyon; they had previously beaten Valencia at the Mestalla and Gent at their own Petrovsky Stadium.
“Four wins—wow!” exclaimed Dzyuba following Zenit’s 2-0 victory in France. “Everyone’s cheering and dancing now in the dressing room!”
There will be more dancing if Zenit can make a bit of a run through the knockout stages, and if CSKA Moscow fail to move off the floor of their bracket the euphoria could expand countrywide.
Aside from the occasional triumph in the Europa League or UEFA Cup, Russian clubs have tended to struggle In Europe. They’ve yet to produce a Champions League contender, and a lone foray into the rarefied air of the European Cup semifinals came in 1991, when Spartak Moscow were ousted by eventual runners-up Marseille.
Spartak were a force back then, winning 11 of 15 Soviet and Russian titles between 1987 and 2001. And in their 1991 quarterfinal against Real Madrid, 20-year-old striker Dmitri Radchenko delivered one of his country’s finest club football performances when he scored twice in a 3-1 win at the Bernabeu.
Radchenko, who transferred to Racing Santander shortly after the Iron Curtain came down, enjoyed a pair of impressive seasons at El Sardinero, where he scored memorable goals against Barcelona and Athletic Bilbao. In 1995 he moved to Deportivo La Coruna, and although his stint in Galicia was largely a disappointment, he played the rest of his career outside Russia.
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Now a youth coach at Zenit, Radchenko is developing the domestic players who will help enable the club’s Champions League squad rotations. And unlike the former Russia international, superstars already on the books don’t have to leave the country to get noticed—or to earn competitive wages.
Danny, who would have been an elite playmaker at most European clubs, has spent his best years at Zenit, where he earns more than €3 million per season. And Hulk—currently on €5 million—has already expressed interest in renewing his contract, which has three-and-a-half years remaining.
“I’m very happy here,” he said last month, adding that he felt comfortable in the city and at the club. “Now this is my home.”
It’s also home to a competitive team in European football’s top competition, and given Zenit’s investment in both domestic and foreign players—and the intentional use of them—it could be for some time.
Jerrad Peters is a Winnipeg-based writer. Follow him on Twitter