2010 RPL Preview: How Far Can Spalletti Take Zenit St. Petersburg?

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2010 RPL Preview: How Far Can Spalletti Take Zenit St. Petersburg?

2009 Record: 15-9-6, 54 points (third place and UEFA Champions League third-round qualifying)

In 2009, a struggling Zenit side axed the most successful manager in club history, Dick Advocaat, after a loss to Tom Tomsk in early August. His replacement, Anatoliy Davydov, admirably led the club to a sparkling 9-3-1 record in his time as caretaker, vaulting the sine-byelo-goluboy into a Champions League spot for 2010.

Despite losing several crucial pieces to the UEFA Cup-winning puzzle during the season, Zenit were able to overcome the odds after sitting in eighth-place out of 16 when Davydov took over.

With victories over CSKA and Spartak Moscow, he quickly made supporters forget about the club's Europa League failure, as they fell to Nacional de Madeira 5-4 on aggregate.

Several new players arrived at the Petrovsky in the summer that vaulted the club forward, none more infamously than former Zenit man Vladimir Bystrov, who had left for arch-rival Spartak in 2005.

While his return met no lack of controversy, the additions of Italian playmaker Alessandro Rosina and center forward Sergei Kornilenko were no less important, but also did not come with nearly the uproar.

The wealthiest club in Russia was not going to be denied a spot in European competitions.

But with great wealth comes great responsibility, as the club will be aiming even higher in 2010. By signing former AS Roma boss Luciano Spalletti, a fresh start and some fresh new ideas have the St. Petersburg bunch thinking about a championship once again.

 

Manager: Luciano Spalletti, first season, 0-0-0

Captain: RB Aleksandr Anyukov

Stadium: Petrovsky Stadium (21,570 )

RFU Top 33 Players Returning: 4. RB Aleksandr Anyukov, CM Igor Denisov, CM Konstantin Zyryanov, RM Vladimir Bystrov.

Key 2009-10 Departures: GK Kamil Contofalsky (to AEL Limassol), LB Dong-jin Kim (to Ulsan Hyundai), ST Fatih Tekke (to Rubin Kazan), ST Sergei Kornilenko (to Tom Tomsk), CM Igor Semshov (to Dinamo Moscow).

Key 2009-10 Arrivals: LB Michael Lumb (from AGF Aarhus), ST Aleksandr Kerzhakov (from Dinamo Moscow), GK Yuri Zhevnov (from FC Moscow), ST Danko Lazovic (from PSV Eindhoven).

 

Lineups and Roster

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Goalkeeping

A golden opportunity fell in Zenit's lap in early February: When FC Moscow folded due to financial reasons, stellar goalkeeper Yuri Zhevnov suddenly needed to find a new club. With an aging Vyacheslav Malafeev, Zenit quickly pounced to add the Belarusian international.

Now, Luciano Spalletti only needs to decide which one starts.

The 31-year-old Malafeev has essentially been Zenit's go-to man in net since 2000, but he struggled in parts of the 2009 season, costing Zenit points on more than one occasion. But when it came down to the end, Malafeev showed his true colors and helped the club back to the Champions League.

Zhevnov however, should open as the backup, but could potentially take over the starting duties if Malafeev falters again. Either way, the backup system is easily the best in Russia should something happen to one of the keepers.

 

Defense

The unit is captained by attack-minded right back Aleksandr Anyukov, who has been a fixture for both Zenit and the Russian national team since he came over from Krylia Sovetov in 2005.

But the group got a huge lift when left-footed Belgian Nicolas Lombaerts returned to action from a long term injury. He quickly established himself not only as the best center back on the roster but one of the best in the league.

Completely level-headed on the pitch and always seemingly in the right place and the right time, Lombaerts was a primary reason why the club posted four clean sheets in a row towards the end of the year.

He is joined by Portuguese veteran Fernando Meira, who plays the part of "fire" to Lombaerts' cool and collected game.

22-year-old Danish talent Michael Lumb should assume the vacant left back spot after transferring from Aarhus. The young Dane was named Best Danish U-21 Player in 2008 and recently received his first cap with the national team.

A productive bench will feature veterans Radek Sirl and Ivica Krizanac, along with the jack of all trades Tomas Hubocan. Hubocan should prove to be an extremely valuable asset to Spalletti, as he can play all four defensive roles well while also showing good speed and attacking skill.

 

Midfield

The midfield has been the strength of this club for many years and 2010 will be no different. On paper, it's one of the strongest Zenit has ever fielded and possibly the best in Russia as well.

In Spalletti's 4-2-3-1 formation, the two holding midfielders will be Igor Denisov and Konstantin Zyryanov, both Russian internationals who bring excellent defensive pedigree. Denisov, as a midfield enforcer, normally will pick up his fair share of cards and won't score much but can patrol the area with total confidence.

Up front are essentially three new players.

Alessandro Rosina and Vladimir Bystrov joined the club in the summer time while Danny missed most of the 2009 season due to an injury suffered in Week Nine. But together, they form an extremely potent offensive group.

All three players can attack with pace, especially Bystrov, and their technical ability should show even more so as the season progresses.

Hungarian international Szabolcs Huszti is a big name who will be used as a substitute, but the left-footed attacker can play multiple roles and will see quite a bit of time off the bench. Viktor Fayzulin and Roman Shirokov round out the bench while extremely talented 20-year-old Anton Sosnin should bounce between the youth squad and senior side.

 

Strikers

For all purposes, it is a two-man show up front.

It was a bit of a homecoming for Aleksandr Kerzhakov, who returned to Zenit after four seasons away from the club. He is joined by Serbian gunner Danko Lazovic, after transferring from PSV.

While Spalletti most times will only use one striker at a time, Kerzhakov will probably be the starter on Day One. But there will surely be days where Lazovic starts or Spalletti feels the need to pair them up front.

Either way, it is a completely restructured group where all four forwards who featured during the 2009 season (Pavel Pogrebnyak, Tekke, Kornilenko and Mateja Kezman) have departed.

Spalletti has also taken a liking to 18-year-old Russian Maksim Kanunnikov, as he believes the youngster has shown incredible promise in training.

 

Analysis

This is certainly a team who is expected to challenge for the title and has to be considered as one of the primary favorites to take home the trophy. The only true question is how quickly can the team begin to gel under Spalletti's guidance.

From the 2009 championship-winning youth team to a gifted and deep senior side, Zenit hopes to make a successful return to the European theater in 2010.

 

Projected Finish: First    

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