Year after year, even the most disinterested football fan would be able to pick the majority of teams that are likely to reach the later stages of the Champions League. Even without knowing the teams involved, a brief run through of the famous names of football would result in a fairly accurate outcome.
The big two Spanish teams, Real Madrid and Barcelona, will be there, as will Italian powers Inter Milan, AC Milan, and Roma.
Germany’s Bayern Munich are invariably there as well. Once you add in the four English teams, that is 10 of the 16 qualifiers covered. Lyon will almost certainly reach the later stages, as will Porto. Without too much difficulty, we have picked 75 percent of the teams that will be in the knockout stages.
However, one team that is likely to spring a few surprises this season is FC Zenit St. Petersburg. It was two years ago that the Russians, inspired by the mercurial Andrey Arshavin, won the UEFA Cup, and a few months later, they beat Manchester United to win the 2008 UEFA Super Cup.
Hopes were high that the team could cause a few shocks in the Champions League the following season, but having been drawn with Real Madrid and Juventus in their group, qualification was always going to be difficult.
Again, this year, hopes are high. Romanian outfit Unirea Urziceni were dispatched in the third qualifying round with relative ease.
Zenit's form in domestic competitions this season has been nothing short of magnificent. Under former Roma manager Luciano Spalletti, they look set for their first title in three years.
Despite only 15 of the 30 games having been played in the league, they are nine points clear of their nearest rivals, having won 12 of their 15 matches, conceding only six goals in the process. They already secured the Russian Cup back in May.
They have not lost a competitive match since losing to Udinese on 12 March, and have won a club-record nine straight league games—a daunting set of statistics.
Whether they can translate that form onto the European stage is still to be seen. However, they are still strengthening their squad, and they have money to burn. Early this week, they signed Portuguese international defender Bruno Alves from Porto for a fee in the region of €22 million.
Alves was being chased by European heavyweights Chelsea and Real Madrid, showing the drawing power of the Russian outfit. He joins Aleksandar Lukovic—the Serbian defensive partner of Nemanja Vidic, who joined from Italian side Udinese for €7.5 million—and Russian striker Aleksandr Bukharov, who signed from Rubin for €10 million.
That makes a spending spree of almost €40 million in the past week.
This comes in addition to the money they spent back in January, before the Russian season had begun. Aleksandr Kerzhakov returned to his first club for around €7 million, Tomás Hubocan signed for €4 million, the highest fee paid to a Slovakian club, and Danko Lazovic signed for €5 million.
Thus, in 2010, Zenit have spent over €55 million on new additions to their squad—the majority of whom have played in major European leagues and European competitions.
These new faces come in addition to some of the quality players that are already at the club. Portuguese international midfielder Danny, is a quality player, having cost the club a Russian record fee of €30 million.
Belgian international defender Nicholas Lombaerts is a solid fixture at the back, whilst they have the Russian international quintet of keeper Vyacheslav Malafeev, defender Aleksandr Anyukov, and midfielders Igor Denisov, Vladimir Bystrov, and Konstantin Zyryanov.
Everybody likes to see new faces in the later stages of European competitions. It gets repetitive when it is the same few teams challenging each year. This year, watch out for the Russian invasion—whilst Zenit are unlikely to be realistic challengers for the overall victory, it would be no surprise to see them causing a lot of problems for the established sides and progressing deep into the tournament.
No team enjoys going to play in Russia in mid-winter, let alone against a high quality side used to the conditions. Under the experienced leadership of Luciano Spalletti, with an expensively assembled squad, they have already taken the Russian game by storm. Zenit will be one side that Europe’s famous names will be desperate to avoid.