Europa League Preview: Villarreal – Zenit St Petersburg

Russian Football News

Zenit have it all to do away in Spain if they are to make it through to the Europa League quarter-final, with the Blue-White-Sky Blues 3-1 down on aggragate after the first leg. In previous years, they have managed to turn-around such deficits, but not away from home.

The Yellow Submarine are almost sinking into the Segunda Division domestically, but in Europe, they are flourishing. Somehow, incredibly, they are just 90 minutes from the final-eight and are the first team to defeat Zenit at home for 25 games (including 23 wins and two draws) in Europe.

Tactical Analysis

Despite being at home, Zenit did not dictate possession nor the game, as the gameplan from the start in the first-leg was to hit the ball long and in behind, using Sardar Azmoun’s decent pace and clever movement and Artem Dzyuba’s sheer physicality to their advantage.

This may have worked, if not for horrendous defending at the other end. Branislav Ivanovic and Yaroslav Rakitskiy are a very experienced and physical partnership, but are both on the wrong end of 30 and can be exposed by pace.

Villarreal have pace in abundance up top, especially through young Nigerian striker Samuel Chukwueze. He may not have scored last midweek in Piter, but truly gave Zenit’s defence the run-around.

Going into this game, especially away from home, Zenit must tighten-up, cease defending with such a criminally high-line and crucially, take their chances. They have not scored more than once away from home in their last eight European away games, losing six.

Team News

Zenit have largely a clean bill of health, as with last week. Claudio Marchisio and Aleksandr Erokhin are both still injured, but it is debatable whether the former is even that much of a miss. His pedigree in undoubtable, but it’d be nice just to see a modicum of it in a Zenit shirt. Aleksandr Kokorin also remains out after his arrest alongside Pavel Mamaev

READ MORE: Kokorin and Mamaev – Four months, no sentence, no end in sight?

If Zenit even do manage the almost-impossible, they may have to do so on eggshells as all of Aleksandr Anyukov, Rakitskiy, Elmir Nabiullin, Wilmar Barrios and Hernani are a booking away from suspension.

Key Players

Wilmar Barrios is vital, he started slow but is now quickly becoming one of Zenit’s key men with his keen ability to dictate from deep and sniff out danger. Villarreal counterattacks will be even more frequent and dangerous now Zenit are under the cosh and are forced to play on the front foot from the outset; the Colombian will need to be on the top of his game.

Although signed not long after the departure of Leandro Paredes, he is not a complete replacement for the Argentinian. Barrios is more of a traditional defensive midfielder and a true terrier in the middle – he will be chiefly responsible for dictating play in the middle of the park. If Zenit want to come away with a win, they probably need a clean sheet and thus Barrios will need to be a barrier in the middle of the park.

Newly-crowned RFN Top 50 champion, Artem Dzyuba is Zenit’s key man in attack. The 30-year-old is the complete forward that opposition defenders hate to play against. Strong at holding up the ball to bring other players into play, Dzyuba passes the ball well and possesses surprisingly agile off-the-ball movement. He is far from a powerful cart horse, with his finishing ability crucially underrated. Though Sardar Azmoun has taken the limelight with five goals in his last five games, his striking partner – who has been under-par in Europe since the return – needs to be equally as destructive.

Predicted Line-up

Zenit (4-4-2): Lunev – Smolnikov, Ivanovic, Rakitskiy, Nabiullin – Kuzyaev, Barrios, Ozdoev, Driussi – Azmoun, Dzyuba

Match Prediction

Zenit need to take their chances as well as keep it clear at the back, and will likely once again aim for the ball over the top and in behind as often as possible. They have the quality to pull it off, but I’m not sure they can both stay defensively resilient and grab the three away goals they need.

Villarreal 2 – 1 Zenit


Author: James Nickels

Born and raised in South Shields, the direct mid-point between Sunderland and Newcastle in North-East England during an era of sustained success and European football for the Magpies, while the Black Cats floundered in the lower divisions, so naturally I decided to support Sunderland. I’ve developed an interest in Russian football over the last decade or so, but it piqued while studying for my Masters’ Degree in Russian and Soviet History, and I’ve been hooked by Spartak Moscow ever since. Considers Eduard Streltsov the best of his generation, and a fond proponent of his repatriation.

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