Hulk or no Hulk, Zenit's Champions League dream seems all but over

Champions League Pitch

Currently looking down and out in the Champions League Zenit St Petersburg will have reason to wonder why after the money they spent on Hulk and Axel Witsel. With a player discarded from the ranks setting pulses racing in the Bundesliga were the transfer dealings in the summer a mistake?

Last season saw Russian side Zenit St Petersburg triumphant in their pursuit of a second consecutive Russian Premier League title. Under the guidance of Italian boss Luciano Spaletti they have reassembled themselves as contenders once again after the loss of star players such as Andrey Arshavin, Anatoly Tymoschuk and Pavel Pogrebnyak.

That team not only conquered Russia but made a significant impact on Europe in 07-08 as Arshavin and co carved their way through teams such as Bayern Munich, Bayer Leverkusen and finally Glasgow Rangers in the final.

2012-13 was supposed to be the season that the club finally launched a serious attack on the Champions League. Funded by GAZPROM, the largest extractor of natural gas on the planet, a company that generated over $150billion pounds in revenue and had a net income of $45billion last year one thing the club would always have this summer was money to spend. They looked to Portugal for their inspiration and snapped up two of the country’s hottest properties in Axel Witsel and Hulk of Benfica and FC Porto respectively.

One look at their group would also have given them hope of qualification. Malaga and Anderlecht on paper should have been despatched by the Russian juggernaut and even AC Milan would not be considered major opponents after they lost two star-players to Paris Saint-Germain in the summer.

Malaga have been a surprise package. They lost Cazorla, Mathijsen and Rondon among others this summer but with Manuel Pellegrini at the helm, the man behind Villarreal’s Champions League semi-final run of 05-06, The Anchovies should not have been underestimated. They thrashed Zenit 3-0 in match day one.

AC Milan then defeated them 3-2 at the Petrovsky and this was followed by their first points of the competition, and perhaps their most alarming performance yet. They were outperformed by Anderlecht on the night but a dubious penalty award saw them win. The atmosphere at their home ground was a damp squib and the long awaited ‘Gazprom Arena’ which opens in 2015 will be a huge boost for the club. This week they travelled to the Constant Vanden Stock and were defeated comfortably by Anderlecht. The Belgian side have some talent but compared to the Russian side they should be easily disposable.

There appears to be some discontent at the club and while they are currently on a four game winning streak in the Russian Premier League they have barely set pulses racing with scrappy victories over FC Rostov, Alaniya and Kuban. Currently they sit third behind CSKA and big-spending Anzhi but most alarming is the topsy-turvy form of Hulk.

While Witsel has started to bed into the Russian midfield Hulk looks to be on another planet to his fellow professionals. On his day the burly winger has been unplayable but unfortunately that hasn’t seemed the case recently in almost absent displays. The link-up with Alexander Anyukov, consistently one of the best players in Russia for the last five years, has been non-existent. Often he just ambles around like a lost fawn a feature particulary prevalent against Anderlecht at home in match day three.

The Brazilian cannot take all the blame of course and he was unavailable for the most recent fixture in Brussels after a thigh injury, not to mention the fact he is currently the clubs top-scorer. Alexander Kerzhakov is wasteful in front of goal and the apparent separation of Russian players from the foreigners came to a head with the suspension of captain Igor Denisov in September.

They sold Hungarian Szabolcs Huszti in the summer; a player barely a first-team regular and he has since gone on to be one of the best performing players in Europe this season with German side Hannover 96, another irritating piece of transfer dealing.

Zenit are currently bottom of Group C on three points and have two games to turn things around. Six points against Malaga at home and AC Milan away seems unlikely and four from six will likely not see them graduate to the next stage. Once again Zenit are coming unstuck at the Group Stages and left fighting with Anderlecht for a Europa League spot.

The Champions League seems to be a step too far for Zenit Saint Petersburg.

What do you make of the clubs failings in the Champions League?

image: © El Ronzo

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