Thursday 17 January 2019

Zenit have yet to reach their peak

Zenit St Petersburg manager Mircea Lucescu
Zenit St Petersburg manager Mircea Lucescu

In a coaching career spanning almost four decades with jobs in five different countries, the wily old Mircea Lucescu has seen it all and knows the game.

So don't throw out the tired line about teams from Ireland instinctively playing a "British style" game. And certainly don't inform the 71-year-old that his Zenit side have simply to turn up at home to Dundalk here in St Petersburg tonight to progress to the knock-out stages of the Europa League.

In Russia, people expect, and expect things of a side like Zenit. Even being in the Europa League, while the little-known Rostov play away in the Champions League under the banner of Russia, is hard to take and Zenit are very much a club who see Champions League football as an essential food item, not an occasional morsel.

It's why they rejected a bid of €30 million from Juventus for Axel Witsel last summer, it's why they are leaving their aged-looking small stadium, on the north side of the city on the banks of the Neva, to move into a brand new 67,000-capacity ground next year.

But Lucescu, who has won European trophies with sides like Galatasaray and Shakhtar Donetsk, has been around long enough to know that Zenit have to do more than simply turn up tonight. On paper, their XI of senior internationals, a squad valued at €150m, should trounce Dundalk and a fourth straight win in this competition would qualify them for the last 32, with two games to spare.

Yet Dundalk did take the lead at home to Zenit and the Russians had to find the ability to move up a gear to seal that win. "I expect a difficult game. They have nothing to lose, only something to win. Zenit have a lot to lose in this game," said Lucescu ahead of tonight's tie, expected to be a 22,000 sell-out.

"Don't forget, Dundalk have the possibility of qualifying too, they are a good side. They played a good match against AZ and against Maccabi Tel Aviv, we saw for 70 minutes in our game against them that they were a good side too, they go on the counter attack very quickly."

Before Lucescu addressed the media at the match stadium last night, Zenit's Russian international Alexander Kerzkahov had given the view that Dundalk were (yawn) a "typically British side with physical power".

Not a view his boss shares, though and Lucescu went on to dismiss the opinion of Kerzhakov, a frustrated figure with Zenit this season.

"There are impressions that Dundalk are not a good team, but that's not true," he says. "They are a good team, they are not a Sunday league team. They have good players, are well organised, they are physically strong and they play European football, not British like before, kick and run. They play well, they are fast and it won't be easy for us," he added.

"We have not achieved qualification yet, we have to wait."

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