Andrew Flint –
Zenit vs Copenhagen – Thursday, November 29, 17:55 GMT/19:55 MSK – Krestovsky Stadium – St. Petersburg, Russia
At this time of year, the sun sets fast in St. Petersburg. Its reputation as a city is one that includes a frosty climate, and visitors to the breathtaking Krestovsky Stadium are instantly put at a slight psychological disadvantage when faced with the other-wordly stadium teetering delicately on the icy shores of the Bay of Finland. The retractable roof will almost certainly be closed to provide a very different atmosphere inside the ground for the visit of Copenhagen, as it was at the weekend against Rostov, but by then the first mental blows will already have been taken.
This aura extends to the team itself. Perennial heavyweights at this stage of the competition, even when off form Zenit have a quality of perseverance that few visitors can match. Against Slavia Prague they were outclassed for almost the entire match, but could still muster a sensational through-ball from Leandro Paredes and a cool finish from now-jailed former wunderkind Aleksandr Kokorin. The Europa League record for longest unbeaten home run from group stage onwards is earned from a resilience like this.
Zenit are ever so slightly starting to show signs of weaknesses domestically, though, if one looks past the superficial results on paper. Two wins from their last five competitive matches is hardly a crisis, but at the time of year when Zenit traditionally crumble it has allowed their title rivals the scent an opportunity. Being knocked out of the Russian Cup will matter little to the hierarchy who care about one thing: European success. Although this match represents about as solid an opportunity to secure passage as possible – a win, or goalless draw, guarantees knockout football – it is still a hurdle that must be jumped.
A morale-boosting win at the weekend over nearest title challengers FC Midtjylland will have done Copenhagen no harm. Manager Stale Solbakken was less than convinced by the performance, in particular the lack of endurance shown by his players towards the end of the game that kept them top. “We seemed a bit tired in the second half, and the game here today also shows that we are going to change a bit in the remaining matches this fall. Some seemed tired in both legs and head, and therefore we will also change a little if we are to survive in the last five matches.”
What changes he will make remain to be seen. Star winger Viktor Fischer is unavailable through injury in a big blow, which will also limit Copenhagen’s attacking options. The system Solbakken has largely employed involves playing two striker up front, usually club legend and former Lokomotiv Moscow forward Dame N’Doye. To do that without his most electric wide man, however, might be risky, so perhaps by ‘change a little’ he is referring to the system.
With Slavia Prague two points ahead, matching their result will be imperative going into the final matchday. Bordeaux have a mathematical chance but must win both their final games and hope that Zenit are motivated to win away in the Czech Republic on matchday six. Winning next to the perishingly cold waters surrounding the Krestovsky this week would be the perfect tonic to keep Group C simmering right to the end.
Zenit vs Copenhagen – Players to Watch
Robert Mak #20 – Zenit St. Petersburg
The Slovakian winger has not had everything go his way since arriving in Russia. Initially, he was very much a bit-part player handed substitute appearances at best, but this season he has flourished. It was his goal that gave Zenit a share of the spoils in the Danish capital on matchday one. His direct running style sets opposition defences on the back foot and provides a more tangible supply line for a target man in the middle, as opposed to a dribbler like Sebastian Driussi on the other flank. He provides an effective foil for his younger, more elusive teammates by occupying defenders for a fraction longer.
Dame N’Doye #14 – Copenhagen
The Senegalese striker is a club legend, and for good reason. Despite approaching his 34th birthday in February, he is one of only two players to have started every league game, a testament to his fitness levels. He is the all-time top goalscorer for the club despite having only completed four full seasons there. His acrobatic athleticism is perhaps most obvious talent that sets him apart – his stunning goal against bitter rivals Brondby a decade ago was voted the most important moment in Copenhagen’s club history, and was a remarkable feat of balance and flexibility. As a former Lokomotiv Moscow forward, he is not new to Russian surroundings.
Zenit vs Copenhagen – Match Stats
- Zenit have never lost to Danish opposition (W3, D2), conceding just once in four fixtures before meeting Copenhagen this season, almost 30 years ago
- They are unbeaten in this year’s competition, and already hold the Europa League record for longest unbeaten home streak
- In St. Petersburg, Zenit have won every group-stage match in this competition, and 19 in 21 from the group stage onwards
- Copenhagen are on of only four sides still in the competition to have started their campaign in the very first qualifying round
- They are yet to lose an away match this season in the Europa League, conceding just twice in six fixtures
- In six Europa league group-stage campaigns, they have only qualified for the knockout rounds twice
Futbolgrad Network Prediction: Zenit vs Copenhagen – 1-0
Zenit vs Copenhagen – Possible Lineups
Zenit St. Petersburg
Lunev – Anyukov, Ivanovic, Neto, Chernov – Kuzyaev, Erohkin, Paredes – Mak, Zabalotniy, Driussi
Manager: Sergey Semak
Joronen – Ankersen, Bjelland, Vavro, Bengtsson – Skov, Zeca, Kvist, Thomsen – Sotiriou, N’Doye
Manager: Stale Solbakken
Andrew Flint is an English freelance football writer living in Tyumen, Western Siberia, with his wife and two daughters. He has featured on These Football Times, Russian Football News, Four Four Two and Sovetski Sport, mostly focusing on full-length articles about derbies, youth development and the game in Russia. Due to his love for FC Tyumen, he is particularly interested in lower league Russian football and is looking to establish himself in time for the 2018 World Cup. Follow Andrew on Twitter @AndrewMijFlint.