Zenit 1-0 Auxerre: Early Kerzhakov goal settles first leg
Zenit deserve their slender advantage to take to France – but they’ll be disappointed they didn’t score more than one goal.
The Russian leaders are unquestionably one of the most fascinating sides in Europe at the moment – Luciano Spalletti has them playing a distinctive, fluid brand of football which has brought them tremendous success in their own league – into the second half of the season, and still unbeaten.
Their formation has varied throughout the year, however. Zenit seem to have gradually morphed from a 4-2-3-1, into something more like a 4-3-3, and their current shape appears a cross between a 4-3-3 and a Christmas Tree shape – perhaps similar to the system Carlo Ancelotti used towards the end of last season.
The headline story about the formation is that it’s similar to Spalletti’s 4-6-0 he used briefly at Roma, with the main striker Alexander Kerzhakov drifting deep and into wide areas, creating space for midfield runners. This game saw that happen slightly less – he peeled off into a left-sided position now and then, but if this was the first Zenit game you’d seen, you probably wouldn’t have noticed him doing much other than acting as a lone striker.
Indeed, the goal inside the first five minutes was a fairly classic striker’s goal – a cross in from the left, Kerzhakov getting to the ball first and glancing it into the far post.
Zenit fluid, Auxerre rigid
Auxerre had lined up in a standard 4-4-1-1 formation, although there was also minor excitement from the positioning of their own striker, Ireneusz Jelen, who constantly moved out to the right-hand side. Auxerre found it difficult to exploit any space this way though – the Zenit centre-backs were happy leaving Jelen to the left-back, Tomas Hubocan, who is a centre-back by trade anyway, and therefore comfortable dealing with a striker.
Zenit controlled the game through pressing – Sergei Semak and Roman Shirokov were very quick to cause Delvin Ndinga and Benoit Pedretti problems when in possession, and those two found it difficult to distribute the ball out wide, where Walter Birsa, Auxerre’s most talented player, spent most of the first half watching.
Semak and Shirokov had a good understanding, happy to switch positions in order to pressure their individual men more ruthlessly. Behind those two was Igor Denisov, playing a very withdrawn holding midfield role, almost sweeping up behind the two midfielders, in case a quick one-two saw Auxerre’s central midfielders with time on the ball.
Le Tallec finds space
The one problem this caused was that Anthony Le Tallec, the support striker, was given a little too much space in a dangerous area. He had a good chance midway through the first half when he beat Alves to a near post ball, but his first touch ran away from him before he could get a meaningful shot away. The ex-Liverpool player being in space also started the move that resulted in Dennis Oliech hitting the woodwork – Le Tallec lost the ball, it fell to Jelen who held it up briefly, and Oliech dug out a shot from the edge of the area that was inches away from a vital away goal.
But Zenit had the best chances, with Danny – who had a mixed game – causing Auxerre problems with his movement across the pitch, seemingly given license to roam. Kerzhakov was guilty of wasting a good chance when he tried to shoot on the turn rather than laying a ball back to Danny, but the main culprit was Shirokov – who twice found himself unmarked in the penalty area with a glorious chance, but couldn’t compose himself and apply a finish.
Midfield runs nearly put the tie past Auxerre
It was the runs of Shirokov and the rejuvented Semak that were the key to Zenit’s game – sometimes both ended up in goalscoring positions, with Kerzhakov out to the left, Danko Lazovic on the edge of the box, and Danny wherever he felt like being. As the game progressed, the central midfielders played slightly more conservatively, with the two full-backs instead taking their turn to get forward – Aleksandr Anyukov was particularly dangerous as Birsa was caught on his heels a couple of times.
Auxerre’s best chance of the second half came when a long ball over the top from Pedretti found Jelen, but he lofted the ball over the goalkeeper and onto the top of the netting. 1-0 sets up the second leg very nicely.
A typically professional performance from Zenit – an early goal from them rarely results in anything else than a Zenit victory. Kerzhakov played a slightly more traditional role than he often does, but the direct runs of the central midfielders was successful and should have resulted in more goals.
Zenit’s fluidity created triangles in advanced, wide areas that Auxerre’s more boxey shape was unable to do, and Danny’s license to roam the pitch meant he was more of an influence than Birsa.
1-0 was a fair scoreline – Auxerre will be confident of turning it around, but they will have to be extremely wary of Zenit on the counter-attack.Zenit 1-0 Auxerre: Early Kerzhakov goal settles first leg