If you had said that Zenit Saint Petersburg would reach the last 16 of the Champions League after the matchday one defeat against APOEL, everyone would think that would be a great result, or you`re a mad man. But after being narrowly knocked out by Benfica 4-3 on aggregate in the last 16, you can`t help but think that it could have been so much more. Zenit were bidding to become only the second Russian club in history to make it to the quarterfinals of the UEFA Champions League, and while they just fell short of that, the current team will go down in history as the first ever Zenit side to make it through to the knockout stages of the best club tournament in Europe.
Many people and fans still behold the great Zenit side of 2008, which contrived to be win the UEFA Cup and Super Cup, winning many new admirers along the way. That team was one of the most dangerous and well balanced teams in Europe, with reliable captain Anatoly Tymoshchuk connecting the defensive midfield zone well with more creative players, such as star player Andrey Arshavin, and the prolific striker Pavel Pogrebnyak. Big things were expected of Zenit in the Champions League in the autumn of 2008, but after being placed in a tough-looking group with Real Madrid, Juventus and Belarusian unknowns BATE Borisov, Zenit plundered just one victory from 6 games, coupled with 2 draws and 3 defeats. While that Zenit team is still largely considered the best Zenit team in the history of the club after winning the Russian title and lifting two major European trophies, they were found severely wanting in Europe`s top club competition. But this is not something you can say of the current Zenit side today.
After Luciano Spalletti took over in the winter of 2009/2010, his task was made pretty simple by the Zenit board. Win the Russian title and return to the Champions League group stage, after a season in the European doldrums in which the club failed to even qualify for the group stages of the newly formed UEFA Europa League. Spalletti himself had plenty of Champions League experience as a manager already to his name, having managed Italian side Roma in the tournament, and without doubt this was a big factor in him being chosen as the right candidate to lead Zenit back to the big time. Any doubters that Spalletti had were quashed pretty quickly. The Italian led Zenit to Russian Cup triumph in May, and although failing in the Champions League qualifiers against French club Auxerre, he won the Russian Premier League with Zenit which in a season with just two defeats, to ensure that the Petersburg club would be mixing it with Europe`s giants once again in the Autumn of 2011.
The draw for the group stages was made in late summer, and the anticipation surrounding the draw was big. Would it be another seriously difficult group like it was in 2008? Or would the draw be much kinder? As it turned out, the group didn`t appear to be the most difficult, but you wouldn`t call it a kind draw either. Placed in a group with fellow former UEFA Cup winners Shakhtar Donetsk, former Champions League winners and current Europa League champions Porto, and dangerous Cypriot side APOEL Nicosia, Zenit were happy to have avoided clubs such as Barcelona and Manchester United, but at the same time well aware that the fight to qualify would for the round of 16 would be a long and nervous one that would go down to the last second of the last group match in December.
And that is exactly how it panned out. Zenit scraped a 0-0 draw with Porto in Portugal on matchday 6 to qualify for the round of 16, thereby knocking out the Europa League holders. Spalletti, less than two years after signing with the Russians, had completed all that was asked of him, and despite the fact that the current Zenit side is generally not considered the best in the club`s history, it had done something that the golden 2008 team had failed to do, which is qualify for the latter stages of the Champions League.
However, Zenit`s journey came to an end in the next round after being paired up with Benfica. A 3-2 first leg at home in freezing Russia game them a foothold, but Benfica took advantage of their two vital away goals with a 2-0 win after a dismal performance from the Russians, their Champions League train came to a grinding halt.
But can we call the campaign as a whole a success for Zenit? In my opinion we certainly can. Before the group stages began, and certainly after matchday one, you would struggle to find many people who would have believed that Zenit could make it to the last 16. You have to say it is a great achievement in itself for Zenit to make it to the latter stages of this tournament, and it is something that will never be forgotten by players and fans alike. But having come so close to progressing even further, it leaves a slightly bitter taste in your mouth, and increases the burning ambition to go on and do something that no Russian club has ever done before: win the Champions League. But what has to be done to have any chance of achieving this, or at least reaching the quarter or semi finals?
In my opinion, it`s really simple: Find a cure for the severe homesickness, and fast. Zenit have now failed to win away from home in Europe since a 3-0 win in Greece against AEK Athens in the Europa League in the winter of 2010. If you can`t find your feet away from home, it`s impossible to reach the quarter finals, semi finals, or the final itself. Apart from the 2-2 draw in Ukraine against Shakhtar, in a game that Zenit dominated while showed top level, flowing football, Zenit seemed afraid in all their away games, afraid to string two passes together, afraid to venture out of their own half. Is this because of the fierce atmosphere in away grounds such as against APOEL in Cyprus? Maybe. But I think it all comes down to confidence more than anything else. Playing well away from home in the Champions League is a difficult thing to achieve, and winning away from home is even more difficult, but the top teams such as Barcelona always seem to find a way to do it, even when playing poorly. Zenit cannot do this, but it is not due to a lack of ability. It comes down to a lack of belief, and a lack of courage. The Russians have a fantastic home record however, unbeaten at fortress Petrovsky in Europe since September 2009, and very rarely do teams leave there with a decent result. In fact only APOEL in this season`s Champions League escaped without being defeated. Replicating that kind of form away from home is difficult to achieve, but to advance to the next level you have to find the courage to achieve this.
Overall however, this season was a success for Zenit in the Champions League. Qualifying for the latter stages of the tournament for the first time is something that will never be forgotten by anyone involved with the club, and we have seen that this current Zenit team is able to compete with any opponent, let it be Barcelona or APOEL, and have the capabilities to achieve a good result. We all know where the team has to improve, and in just a few months, assuming that Zenit qualifies for the group stages again, we`ll all be ready for another shot at Europe`s top prize. The foundations have been laid for greater success.