Zenit St Petersburg kick-started preparations for the new season last week when the players and staff returned from the off-season break. There are no new faces yet and only one departure confirmed, so the fans are eagerly waiting for the next months.
Apart from those absent for international duty, a full complement of players joined head coach Sergei Semak’s first training session in St Petersburg, before the squad headed to Austria on June 18 for the first Gazprom Training Camp and some friendly games.
With the new season just a few weeks away – Zenit’s first official match of the 2019/20 season is against Lokomotiv in the Russian Super Cup on July 8. How are the defending champions shaping up ahead of the new campaign?
Zenit ended a four-year wait to win the Russian Premier League title last season and they did so in style, leading runners-up Lokomotiv by eight points after winning 20 of 30 matches.
Given their dominance last season and the wealth of playing talent Semak has at his disposal, Zenit are the odds-on favorites to successfully defend the league title.
The squad has a wonderful blend of youth and experience across the pitch. In goal, Zenit have a solid pair of hands in Andrey Lunev, who at 27-years-old is just entering his prime years as a goalkeeper.
All across the defensive backline, Zenit possess a wealth of experience, led by 35-year-old former Chelsea star Branislav Ivanovic, who is joined in defense by Ukrainian Yaroslav Rakytskyi, 29, and 23-year-old Argentine Emanuel Mammana. However, they will need to find a replacement for center-back Luis Neto, who is leaving the club after 6 and a half seasons. Neto is likely to be fancying a return to his homeland, where he will be joining Sporting CP backline.
At full-back, Zenit have 24-year-old Elmir Nabiullin on the left flank and 30-year-old Igor Smolnikov on the right – another example of the team’s mix of youth and experience.
In central midfield, Zenit looks to have done a good job in replacing Leandro Paredes – who moved to Paris Saint-Germain in January for €40m – with 25-year-old Colombian Wilmar Barrios. The footballer has recently helped his national team defeat Lionel Messi’s Argentina at the Copa America.
Barrios is joined in the center of the field by the likes of 26-year-old Russia internationals Daler Kuzyaev and Magomed Ozdoev. Zenit still counts with Argentine Matías Kranevitter – all 26 – as well as Aleksandr Erokhin, 29.
In the attacking positions, Zenit possess two of the most dangerous wingers in Russian football, with 23-year-old Argentine Sebastian Driussi – scorer of 13 goals last season – on the left side, and compatriot Emiliano Rigoni, 26, down the right.
Iran international striker Sardar Azmoun, who is just 24, has slotted in well to the Zenit side since moving from Rubin Kazan in February, while 30-year-old Artem Dzyuba is sure to bring his typical presence up front.
One of the most outstanding signings last season, but who surely didn’t live up to the hype, was former Juventus captain Claudio Marchisio. Although he was 32 years old, coming on a free transfer it seemed like it was a great deal for the Russian team, but the Italian has unfortunately struggled with injuries and has only made 15 appearances in total – 9 in the Russian Premier League. He scored 2 goals though and if he gets in shape again, he can still be a key addition for the next season.
Zenit’s task now is to not only live up to their pre-season favorite tag but to become the dominant force of the Russian Premier League – and make themselves top pick in the odds every pre-season, the way the New England Patriots are routinely the NFL Super Bowl favorites, or the All Blacks are always the Rugby World Cup favorites.
Their disappointing effort in Europe last season – having been eliminated from the Europa League in the Round of 16 by a Villarreal side who were fighting relegation in Spain – can certainly be improved upon this campaign. Additionally, as league champions, Zenit have qualified directly for the UEFA Champions’ League group stages, and with a kind draw they certainly have the chance to qualify for the knockout stages.
However, the focus should be firmly on establishing themselves as the leading club in Russia, and with the squad they currently have – and a talented and popular manager at the helm – it will likely have to take something special from Zenit’s rivals to stop them winning successive league titles.