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Sep 7, 2010

Zenit's domestic delight to cure European woes?

The arrival of Zenit St Petersburg on the Russian scene in 2007 was heralded as a move away from the traditional powerbase of Moscow. It was the first time that the title had been taken out of the capital since 1995 and, with powerful oil company Gazprom sponsoring the side, many neutrals were excited to see a new force in the country.

Three years on and, despite investing a small personal fortune in new players, Zenit have delivered just that one title - with unfashionable Rubin Kazan winning the last two back-to-back. In the all-time table of top flight seasons, the Moscow clubs of Dynamo, Spartak, Lokomotiv and CSKA dominate with 18 consecutive years of involvement, but Zenit's recent domestic achievements have been overshadowed by those of newcomers Rubin (who have only been in the division for seven years) - until now.

With 17 games played in the Russian Premier League, big spending Zenit have given themselves a great chance of walking away with the title. They have yet to lose a game and have brought in quality international players such as Portuguese defender Bruno Alves from Porto for €22 million and Serbian Alexandar Lukovic for €7.5 million from Udinese during the summer.

Most importantly they have contributed to the decline of their main rivals by signing centre-forward Alexandr Bukharov from Rubin for €12 million and even managed to steal the influential 34-year-old Sergei Semak from the club for a mere €2 million. Rubin have still managed to drag themselves to second place in the league (even without the departed Alejandro Dominguez) but, having played two games more that Zenit, they could be 12 points behind with 11 games to go. Notably, their home match against the leaders doesn't come until the penultimate game of the season on November 19; by which time it will almost certainly be too late.

Rubin's decline has certainly opened the door for Zenit on the home front, but the soon-to-be-deposed champions have something that the multi-millionaire owners at Gazprom can only dream of for now: Champions League football.

Drawn in a group again with Barcelona (who they beat 2-1 at Camp Nou and held 0-0 at home last season), the Rubin side that will face Lionel Messi and company will be well organised and could fancy their chances of causing another upset even though they have undergone a change in personnel, while Panathinaikos and FC Copenhagen are certainly ripe for the picking.

By contrast, Zenit's focus will be trained on their league campaign and the less glamourous Europa League. Knocked out of Champions League qualifiers by French side Auxerre, despite leading the first leg 1-0, the Russian side have suffered a mental barrier in European competitions since they picked up the 2008 UEFA Cup and defeated Manchester United 2-1 in the subsequent Super Cup.

Unable to secure a foothold in the European game, the highlight of their inaugural 2008-09 Champions League campaign was a 0-0 draw with Juventus at home and, while they played some decent football in their group games, did not do enough to seal progression over the Italians and Real Madrid. Unceremoniously hammered 3-0 by Madrid in their last game in the competition, they fared little better in the resulting UEFA Cup campaign as they fell to Udinese thanks to two late goals in the last-16 and chose to air their many protests at the officials through the media.

However, worse was to follow as they crashed out of the 2009-10 Europa League qualifiers to lowly Portuguese side CD Nacional, losing 5-4 on aggregate after a late goal from Ruben Micael, and, if they are to prove successful in another Europa League adventure this campaign, they will have to exorcise a few ghosts.

The arrival of manager Luciano Spalletti will certainly help. Since he took charge in December 2009, the team have been unbeaten in the league and haven't lost since the 1-0 defeat away at Saturn Moscow the previous October. The former Roma coach has moved quickly to address the club's weaknesses and a lack of a focal point up front has seemingly been solved by the signing of the muscular Bukharov. That the striker described his move from Rubin as "a step up" (after two back-to-back title wins), perhaps explains Zenit's profile in Russia and he will play a vital role in the improvements in the way the side play.

Key to Rubin's title success last season with 16 goals, he does not enjoy the best press from Russian scribes who think he is all power and no technique, but it is hard to argue when his style delivers an end product. And it is an end product that Zenit have perhaps lacked in recent seasons.

This year they have ground out results - such as the 2-1 win over Anzhi Makhachkala - when they have not played well - an often used example of championship quality. But Bukharov's role will be all the more central when the Europa League campaign begins again. Having a Plan B when you are not controlling the game assumes extra importance in Europe and the ability to pump the ball long to the 6' 4'' striker could see Zenit on the road to overcoming their recent European woes.

Upon his departure from the club in 2009, star player Andrei Arshavin told Radio Zenit: "Zenit needs a coach, who will guide the team to the title again. For the players it would be easier to work with a foreigner". It seems that is exactly what they needed, although whether Spalletti's influence can bring back the glory days in Europe remains to be seen.

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