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    Zenit St. Petersburg - the side that ate itself

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    Plagued by misfortune and internal rows, Zenit St. Petersburg are a shadow of the side that achieved European glory in 2008. Marc Bennetts asks what went wrong.

    Plagued by misfortune and internal rows, Zenit St. Petersburg are a shadow of the side that achieved European glory in 2008. Marc Bennetts asks what went wrong.

    MOSCOW, August 4 (RIA Novosti) - When Zenit St. Petersburg won the UEFA Cup in May 2008, passing Glasgow Rangers into the ground with a display of Russian-style total football, it was assumed that their success was the start of great things for the club.

    Although CSKA Moscow had lifted the trophy in 2005, the victory was something of a false dawn for the Russian game as its clubs continued to founder on the rock of Champions League group stages.

    But Zenit, funded by Russian energy giant Gazprom and featuring some of the brightest lights in Russian football, were supposed to be different.

    Managed by Dutch coach Dick Advocaat and with a line-up including future Arsenal star Andrei Arshavin, Zenit looked entirely capable of taking the Russian game to the next level. The club's subsequent 2-1 victory over Manchester United in the Super Cup seemed to confirm that Europe was witnessing the birth of a new footballing power.

    And then, inevitably, everything went wrong. Zenit's run of bad luck, injuries, and internal squabbles echoed ex-premier Viktor Chernomyrdin's early 1990s comment on economic turmoil: "We hoped for the best, but things turned out like they always do."

    First the club, distracted by the torturous saga on Arshavin's on-off-on-off-on-off-on move to North London, failed to get out of a tough 2008/09 Champions League group, hitting the woodwork on countless occasions during two narrow defeats to Real Madrid and Juventus and a disappointing 1-1 home draw with Belarusian minnows BATE in the first round of games.

    Foiled in their hunt for Champions League glory, the backlog of domestic league fixtures that Zenit had accumulated during their UEFA Cup campaign saw the club scramble to finish fifth, qualifying for the new 2009/10 Europa League tournament instead of earning a second shot at the continent's most prestigious club competition.

    With Arshavin finally leaving for Arsenal, Zenit pinned their hopes on Portuguese international Danny, signed for 30 million euros from Dynamo Moscow in August 2008. The 25-year-old Portuguese midfielder initially lived up to his promise, scoring a fine solo goal against Manchester United in the Super Cup win on his debut, but his performances began to suffer as the 2009 season kicked off the following March. Shortly afterwards, he suffered a knee injury in training that he has still not recovered from.

    Dumped out of the 2008/09 UEFA Cup in March by Udinese after a blatant goal-line handball by an Italian defender, Zenit's season so far has been characterized by dropped points and missed chances. With just over half the 30-game season played, the 2007 league champions are seven points behind leaders Rubin in sixth place.

    The club has also been embroiled in a series of public rows, first Arshavin hitting out at his hometown club over their reluctance to lower their asking price for his transfer, and most recently Dick Advocaat publically criticizing the club's transfer policy.

    With money available from February's sale of Arshavin to Arsenal and the summer departure of captain Anatoly Tymoshchuk to Bayern Munich, plus this week's deal taking striker Pavel Pogrebnyak to Stuttgart, Advocaat railed in the Russian press on Friday against the quality of players brought in by new sporting director Igor Korneev.

    He has a point. While it would be unfair to judge the new signings before they have had a chance to prove themselves, Belarusian striker Sergei Kornilenko and Torino midfielder Alessandro Rosina were hardly the quality of player the club's fans were hoping could be enticed to make the move to Russia's northern capital.

    The difficulty of convincing players to move to Russia is an eternal problem for the country's top clubs, one that even the bottomless pockets of Gazprom and co. are seemingly unable to solve.

    When I spoke to him in late 2006, during his first year on the job, Advocaat seemed optimistic that stars, or at least top players, would eventually come.

    "Russia has a bad reputation, and that can put both players, and their families, off," Advocaat admitted as we sat in his office at the club's Udelni Park training ground.

    "But that will change," he went on. "There is a lot of money in the game here now, and that, along with the new stadiums being built, will eventually attract stars."

    It is difficult not to feel sympathy for Advocaat's predicament. After having transformed Zenit from a mid-table side into Russian and UEFA champions, his best players have been taken from him and he has little realistic hope of replacing them.

    However, Advocaat's torment is at least coming to an end, with the 61-year-old trainer set to take up the position of Belgian national coach when the Russian season ends in November.

    For now, though, Advocaat is half in and half out of the team.

    "The problem is not so much in new players, as in a new trainer," St. Petersburg sports journalist Mikhail Goncharov at the Fontanka paper told me. "Zenit need to sort the situation out as soon as possible."

    Goncharov also suggested that Zenit's post UEFA Cup problems were due to a familiar St. Petersburg problem.

    "People celebrate success here for too long," he laughed. "The players as well. They thought that after achieving one level of success, everything else would follow automatically. We had the same problem back in the Soviet times when we won our only U.S.S.R. title in 1984. The team fell apart after that as well."

    The new manager, whoever he turns out to be, looks set to inherit a side with serious dressing room problems, exemplified by the very public spat between defender Roman Shirokov and goalkeeper Vyacheslav Malafeyev after a disappointing 2-2 draw with Moscow Region side Saturn.

    "I could have saved that!" Shirokov said of the soft equalizer conceded in the dying minutes of Sunday's game.

    Malafeyev hit back immediately, releasing a statement saying that, "Shirokov has demonstrated once again and confirmed once again that as a person he is a real sh*t. Shirokov no longer exists for me."

    Zenit's next match is at home to west Siberia's Tom Tomsk on Sunday. Defensive problems are expected.

    "It's difficult for me to judge what's going on at Zenit from London," Arshavin told Sport Express. "You need to be inside the club to do that. One thing is clear though - sixth place is not for Zenit."

    Arshavin, who joined his hometown club aged 7, did however attempt to put a positive spin on events for Zenit fans.

    "Everyone who wanted to leave Zenit has now left," he said. "Work can start on building a new team."

    From euphoria to gloom in just over 12 months, Zenit fans could well be forgiven for asking, in the words of local perestroika-era group Kino, "Where did the sorrow come from?"

    M.bennetts@rian.ru

    The opinions expressed in this article are the author's and do not necessarily represent those of RIA Novosti.

    Marc Bennetts is the author of Football Dynamo: Modern Russia and the People's Game (Virgin Books)

     

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