From the start, Hulk's time in Russia always felt like an unlikely adventure. For big-spending Russian champions Zenit St. Petersburg, the high-profile summer move signaled a statement of European intent. But in an already-established squad, Hulk was mostly an awkward fit.
Now, less than six months later, the whole thing might just be over.
Hulk is reportedly upset with Zenit manager Luciano Spalletti and ready to leave the club as early as January, according to The Guardian. The 26-year-old Brazilian winger was visibly incensed at being substituted out of Zenit's Champions League win over AC Milan on Tuesday.
"If the situation with the coach does not resolve itself I may leave the club in the January transfer window," Hulk, 26, was quoted as saying by local media.
Spalletti, who initially played down the incident, reportedly hit back at the striker, telling local media: "Hulk can say anything he wants, but if I decide to change him during the game it means I'm not happy with his play.
"Hulk is mistaken if he thinks he should play for 90 minutes all the time. He said he wants to leave? Then, it's his choice and I can do nothing about it. As for myself, I'm not going anywhere."
Fighting words, indeed, from both sides. Beyond the obvious anger, they reveal a potential disconnect between Hulk and Zenit, one that both sides perhaps should have noticed before agreeing to terms over the summer.
About that: Zenit signed Hulk and Belgian midfielder Axel Witsel for a combined £64 million in early September (via BBC Sport). The move raised eyebrows because the former Porto star had long been linked with Chelsea of the more prestigious English Premier League.
Not long after, the problems began.
That same month, Zenit sent Igor Denisov—then the captain of the first team—to its reserve squad after a disagreement with the club (via FC-Zenit.ru). RIA Novosti later reported that Denisov had gone on strike over his wages, and speculation was rampant in the media that the problem stemmed from the big-money arrivals of Hulk and Witsel (via ESPN FC).
Clearly, all has not been right in St. Petersburg this season. Just as clearly drawn are the lines in the sand.
Hulk, as the headline player in a mega-money move, seems to think he ought to receive preferred playing time, if even a certain prestige in the squad. As Zenit spent so much money to acquire him, one can see why he would feel that way.
Zenit's existing players and manager, on the other hand, don't seem entirely comfortable with Hulk's presence. Certainly, it's impossible to deny that the team has been unsettled this season.
As the January transfer window nears, it's becoming increasingly possible that Hulk's stay in Russia will be short. With other big spenders like Chelsea reportedly interested (via ESPN.co.uk), a move sounds not only possible, but somewhat likely.