Zenit 2-0 Rubin: two goals for Kerzhakov, nine point lead for Zenit
Another efficient win for Zenit, who now lead the Russian Premier League by nine points. They’re not quite out of sight, but it would take an incredible turnaround for them to not win the championship, even with 15 rounds still to play.
This was a fascinating match because, as pointed out in great detail in the Russian press before the game, neither side was really playing with a conventional striker. Luciano Spalletti has Zenit playing in a similar fashion to his “4-6-0″ Roma side of a few seasons ago, with Aleksandr Kerzhakov primarily concerned with dropping deep and making runs to the flanks, to draw out opposition defenders and create space for midfield runners.
Rubin’s situation was less well-crafted – they were somewhat in limbo, having sold their star striker Aleksandr Bukharov to Zenit since their last game covered on ZM. Although they’d acted quickly in signing Obafemi Martins from Wolfsburg, he was only fit enough for a place on the bench. Instead, they played attacking midfielder Gökdeniz Karadeniz alone upfront, and he tended to move deeper to interlink with veteran Sergei Semak.
With this in mind, one could be forgiven for expecting a static, boring contest – but this was anything but. We did have a stop-start first 15 mins, with physios on the pitch no fewer than four times in that period, but once the game had settled down, it became an engaging, open contest.
Lone strikers need support
The game was not characterized by individual battle across the pitch, but by two main factors – firstly, which side could get their two most prominent attacking players to combine (Danny-Kerzhakov for Zenit, Semak-Karadeniz for Rubin).
And, once that had occurred, which side could get midfield runners into dangerous positions? Zenit had width on the right from Vladimir Bystrov, who tended to remain wide until the final moment before cutting in. Both Konstantin Zyryanov and Roman Shirokov had license to get forward too, and with Igor Denisov in the holding role, Zenit were regularly breaking with five players. Their best chance was a simple move where Danny knocked the ball on for Kerzhakov, who hit a long-range shot across goal, that was well saved by Sergey Ryzhikov.
Zenit, as the away side, were more reserved. Their best moves came when Karadeniz moved to the right, to create a triangle with Semak and Pyotr Bystrov. The best move before the opening goal came through this situation – Karadeniz got to the byline on the right, put in a low cross that was laid off by Semak, and Bystrov stormed in to smash a shot straight at Vyacheslav Malafeev.
Another move from the right-hand side was their best chance of a goal. Bystrov won the ball in a dangerous position and passed it to Gökdeniz, who turned inside and then hit a weak shot at Ryzhikov – it’s an obvious comment to make in the circumstances, but Gurban Berdiyew would have been left wondering what might have been, had he been able to call upon the services of a natural striker.
Despite those chances, Zenit were the better side – more dynamic, fluid and with midfield runners supporting their attacks. That was a key factor in their eventual breakthrough – a classic Zenit goal, with Danny picking the ball up deep in his own half and driving directly towards goal. He chipped a wonderful through ball towards Zyryanov making a storming run forward – his shot was saved, but Kerzhakov tapped in the rebound to give Zenit a 1-0 advantage on the stroke of half-time.
Little changed after the break. On the hour, Berdiyew removed Bystrov and brought on Obafemi Martins for his debut, pushing Karadeniz permanently to the right-wing role he drifted to anyway. Martins clearly lacked match sharpness, however, and struggled to adapt to the lone striking role.
As usual when they take the lead, Zenit operated much more defensively. When Rubin got men behind the ball, Zenit only attacked with three or four players, but they did push men forward when able to counter quickly. Neither set of full-backs got forward particularly well, but it was a rare attacking foray from Tomas Hubocan that settled the game – his whipped cross managed to find its way to Kerzhakov at the far post, who nodded in for a second goal, thanks to some slack marking from the usually reliable Cristian Ansaldi.
And that effectively sealed the game – Zenit defended solidly, as always, whilst Rubin looked toothless once Martins was introduced, and struggled to create any decent opportunities.
Zenit were more ambitious at 0-0, and deserved to lead. When 1-0 up, they were happy for Rubin to come onto them, creating space for Zenit’s midfielders to exploit. The goals were both simple and yet typical of Zenit’s approach – both starting from direct runs from a left-sided position, and both turned in on the opposite side by Kerzhakov.
Zenit remain unbeaten at the midway point in the league, and providing they can get through the qualification stage, might be a good bet for a Champions League upset. Spalletti has his team playing wonderful football, both tactically disciplined and fluid in the final third. The arrival of Bukharov is slightly confusing, because it’s difficult to understand where he’ll fit in, but Spalletti is hopefully intelligent enough not to upset the balance of the team for the sake of including a star signing.
Rubin appear to be at something of a crossroads. It may have only been a half hour debut appearance, but there is a feeling that Martins won’t be suited to a lone striking role with the system Rubin play – he’s so incredibly different from Bukharov. Reports that Rubin are in the market for another new striker makes sense, but then this will force them to change their system, and presumably move towards a two-striker formation.
So the game was about which lone striker received the best support from midfield runners, but the remainder of the season will be about which manager can utilize two strikers most effectively.Zenit 2-0 Rubin: two goals for Kerzhakov, nine point lead for Zenit