As the opening weekend of Russian football continued, an under-stocked Zenit St. Petersburg squad headed to Samara for the first match under Italian manager Luciano Spalletti.
The home side, Krylia Sovetov, has been in the media for all the wrong reasons lately. A troubled financial structure that wasn't even sure that the team would be able to take the field against Zenit a few weeks ago, new investors finally came to their aid as well as the club's supporters.
As a testament, over 23,000 fans came out to support their club.
But the day would ultimately go to two men looking to make a new impression—Spalletti and Portuguese midfielder Danny.
The former AS Roma boss, managing his first competitive match since he resigned from the Roman club last September, was eager to impress in a new environment. Danny, who had missed nearly the entire 2009 season due to cruciate ligament damage in his right knee, was also eager to get back on the right track and hopefully back in the picture for Portugal's World Cup squad.
Both men also succeeded admirably, as Spalletti managed a fantastic match and Danny fired Zenit past the hosts 1-0.
From the start, Zenit took the initiative, going long stretches of time with possession, but the execution as the ball moved closer to the goal became sloppy and Krylia Sovetov were more than happy to clear it away from danger. At one point around the 20-minute mark, Zenit had controlled almost 80 percent of the possession time.
Danny, playing as a left wing, caused all sorts of havoc and was easily the most noticeable player on the pitch, as he earned several corners and free kicks. But every time the Portuguese playmaker swung the ball in, Samara's back line held and backup goalkeeper David Yurchenko easily dealt with any garbage.
Aleksandr Kerzhakov, making his return to Zenit, had a handful of chances up front. Unfortunately, he was continuing a storyline from 2009, where no Zenit striker could finish simple chances around the box.
Offensively-gifted Belgian center back Nicolas Lombaerts also marauded forward several times and had two golden opportunities to put Zenit ahead, but his finishing just wasn't there.
As the halftime whistle approached, Zenit goalkeeper Vyacheslav Malafeev had essentially been a spectator all afternoon, having next to nothing to do as it was a rare sight if Krylia Sovetov even managed to clear the ball out of their own third. But a lot of the credit there has to be given to the Zenit back line, featuring three players out of four who were not starters last year.
Tomas Hubocan was filling in for Samara native Aleksandr Anyukov, who could not play. Ivica Krizanac was filling in for also injured center back Fernando Meira. Danish left back Michael Lumb was playing in his first Russian Premier League match since coming over from AGF Aarhus in January.
The 22-year-old Dane had a debut to remember. He got forward with the utmost ease but also provided rock solid defense when called upon, getting back with speed and tackling well.
But despite dominating in nearly every statistical category, the two sides headed to the locker room scoreless.
The Samara faithful gave their squad a hearty applause for a great defensive performance, holding their own despite being outgunned and outmatched across the board.
Halftime: Krylia Sovetov Samara 0-0 Zenit St. Petersburg
Upon the resume, Spalletti kept a level head and didn't make any immediate changes, but did put an emphasis on taking more shots.
Igor Denisov and Vladimir Bystrov got the message, taking shots from outside the penalty area in hopes of creating a friendly ricochet. Yurchenko held his own, however, and didn't allow for any second chance opportunities.
Ten minutes in, Spalletti decided to change up the attack slightly, seeing the field slanted in Zenit's favor, and brought on a second striker in Danko Lazovic. The Serbian took the place of holding midfielder Konstantin Zyryanov, who was simply not needed any longer in this match. Zenit had been attacking too much and the 32-year-old veteran's offense wasn't contributing much.
But the addition of Lazovic seemed to give Krylia Sovetov some life.
Star striker Evgeni Savin—who had been as good as invisible in the first half—was suddenly all over the place and causing problems for Zenit's center backs. But just as the locals were getting a bit too happy with their new-found offense, Spalletti saw a sudden opportunity.
After a few free kicks that went Samara's way, he noticed that manager Yuri Gazzaev was pulling his center backs up for a chance at a header. Spalletti did his scouting however, knowing that Aleksandr Belozerov and company had size but not a lot of speed.
A simple turnover as Samara were trying to move the ball around, Bystrov picked the pocket of 20-year-old Sergei Tkachev and quickly fed a pass up to Danny.
Just like that, it was off to the races. Danny was flying forward accompanied by Kerzhakov, and easily beat Yurchenko for the lead after drawing the young Belarusian away from the net.
But Spalletti wasn't entirely pleased with one goal.
He continued to send the troops forward, although he changed his mind to not insert Italian winger Alessandro Rosina for additional offense. Zenit should have had a penalty 10 minutes after Danny scored, however, when Bystrov was dragged down in the box just as he was about to take a header.
The referees said for play to continue. With Krylia Sovetov throwing everything forward in the final few minutes, Spalletti then took off the mostly ineffective Kerzhakov in favor of his new favorite Russian, 18-year-old striker Maksim Kanunnikov. Kanunnikov was extremely impressive in preseason training and the Russian U-18 man showed great physical qualities.
He had an immediate impact on the match, as he was poaching up field when Danny found him with a pass. But just as he was about to break in alone on goal, defender Ivan Taranov intentionally tripped him up and was promptly given a straight red.
Final Time: Krylia Sovetov Samara 0-1 Zenit St. Petersburg
Shots (on Goal): Zenit 15 (3), Krylia Sovetov 5 (3)
Possession Time: Zenit 62 percent, Krylia Sovetov 38 percent
Spalletti's first match with Zenit is a masterclass of how patience pays off. "In the first half, we risked a few open chances trying to score. But in the end we were able to wait until the right point," said Spalletti. "Zenit showed as a mature team and deservedly won the game."
Man of the Match: Danny
The Portuguese playmaker not only scored the only goal, but also created a ton of chances for both himself and his teammates. It was truly a 90-minute performance and he showed no ill-effects from the knee injury a season ago.
Hopefully when Kerzhakov and Lazovic gain full form, his play will be even more welcome as his passing won't be all for naught.
Igor Denisov also had a fantastic match in the central midfield, shutting down almost everything that came his way throughout the match. He also seemed devoted to taking more shots from outside, and he nearly scored early in the second half after missing the top corner by a few centimeters.
Zenit's next match will be at home on March 21 against arch-rival Spartak Moscow, always a wildly entertaining fixture with plenty of goals.
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