Can Anatoliy Davydov Lead Zenit St. Petersburg To The Promised Land?

Sergey ZikovSenior Analyst INovember 6, 2009

Taking over as a manager halfway through a season is never an easy task. Taking over as a manager halfway through a season and replacing the most successful coach in club history makes for an incredibly challenging job.

But Anatoliy Davydov, the most capped player in Zenit history, received that call after UEFA Cup-winning manager Dick Advocaat was removed due to a string of horrific performances by the club.

When he took over on August 10, he was in a tricky spot.

In 10 days, his club would travel to Portugal for the first of a home-and-home playoff in the new Europa League.

Except things did not go as planned and Zenit crashed out with a 1-1 draw at the Petrovsky Stadium, having a place in the group stage stolen away by a final minute equalizer that stunned the crowd.

Questions of Davydov's effectiveness already started to surface and management brought in two Italian specialists for interviews, Roberto Mancini and Luciano Spalletti as potential replacements. But no agreement was found with either man, and Davydov remained at the helm.

Almost unfairly doubted, Davydov kept his nerves and silently continued a fine display of coaching as he led the team to six straight wins after falling out of the Europa League.

Part of that streak included a 2-0 victory over Champions League rival CSKA Moscow, a victory that propelled Zenit into a spot in Europe's premier football exhibition themselves.

However, Davydov has faced a new challenge as injuries continue to mount.

Center-back Fernando Meira, Left-back Dong-jin Kim, play-maker Alessandro Rosina, and valuable substitute Szabolcs Huszti have all suffered some sort of injury, shortening Zenit's bench considerably and forcing normal bench players into unexpected full-time action.

And, it couldn't have come at a worse time.

Just as the team was putting serious heat on the top two, Spartak Moscow and Rubin Kazan, the injury bug struck and snuffed out any realistic chance of a domestic championship.

Davydov's streak was also broken, as the team fell in the snow to FC Moscow, the first league match that he failed to earn at least a point. With four new starters and a weak bench, Davydov ran out of viable options.

Now, with three matches left in the season, can Davydov finish the job and guide Zenit back to the Champions League?

His road is not an easy one.

After hosting Terek Grozny, the team faces the leagues 1-2 punch, travelling to Rubin Kazan and then finishing the season with arch-rival Spartak Moscow. It's an ending that could be all-or-nothing for Zenit, as anything less than three points can be considered a defeat.

But to date, Davydov continues to mix with his formations and players. Every week, he trots out a new lineup and alters his tactics ever so slightly.

In his first couple matches as a manager, he wanted to encourage youth. Young U-21 striker Pavel Ignatovich received his first senior team appearance under Davydov, in the Europa League as well. The call-up was well deserved, as the 20-year-old has celebrated 17 goals in 23 starts for Zenit's second team. Although he technically did not score, he did put the ball in the net, only for it to be questionably flagged for offsides.

But no sooner did he get youngsters Aleksei Ionov and Russia U-19 star Maksim Kannunikov into action, he changed his mind again and forgot about the youth movement. It's all about the veterans and only veterans now.

He has experimented in formations from a 4-6-0 to a 3-4-3 and everything in between. He's been predictably unpredictable and cemented his status as a man that isn't a fan of a consistent strategy. If no strategy is a good one, Davydov has directed organized chaos because quite simply, nobody has a clue what strategy he'll call on next. 

With all the mixing and matching of players and tactics, there has been one that suits Davydov's liking from the beginning. Zenit's primary focus must be on team defense, which is nothing truly surprising coming from a man who played 26 years of professional football as a defensive midfielder.

Make no mistakes, Davydov is a class act, always well-versed in speech and has an undeniable wealth of knowledge. Just maybe he was better suited to manage the reserves, a task he had done superbly well in the past several years.

But results were coming. With a full compliment of defenders, Zenit posted a streak of four consecutive shutouts and allowed one goal or less in eight straight matches.

However, his true test as a manager, is not how badly he can thrash relegation side Khimki or Kuban Krasnodar.

Zenit needs three points against the two best teams in the league.

While a Europa League berth is well in hand, the supporters and players expect more. With the recent Champions League triumphs of Rubin and CSKA, two clubs that Zenit has had modest success against, the confidence factor is not a major problem.

"We need to win three games, very difficult matches. But difficult, not impossible. If Spartak wins the Championship at Petrovsky, this would be a disaster." said Belgian center-back Nicolas Lombaerts.

Lombaerts should get a boost this weekend if fellow center-back Meira is ready to play once more after injury, as the two defended extraordinarily well as a tandem under Davydov, playing a major role in the shutout streak.

But, before Zenit can think about dethroning Rubin, they must get a result at home against a rugged Terek side that beat the Blue-White-Sky Blues 3-2 earlier in the season.

Either way, the next three matches will likely decide whether Maxim Mitrofanov must find a new coach in the offseason or handsomely reward Davydov for his performance.