Zenit spending shakes up European order
Published: 04.10.12 / Written by: David Gold
A new rival for Europe´s leading clubs is arising in the east.
Zenit St Petersburg, the back to back Russian champions, do not get as high a profile as other big spending teams, such as Chelsea, Manchester City or Paris St Germain, but they are a rising force continentally.
Zenit, winners of the Europa League in 2008, are bankrolled by Gazprom, the unfeasibly rich Russian state energy provider. The club are also building a new stadium for the World Cup in 2018, and that will only boost their coffers further. Gazprom have spent huge sums turning Zenit into Russia's leading force, but intriguingly, the club had barely made a signing in recent years. Instead, they nurtured talents such as Danny, Roman Shirokov and Aleksandr Anyukov.
This year that changed. Luciano Spalletti, the former Roma coach, who has led them to the title two years in a row and made them Russia's top team, finally was given license to spend significantly. In came Hulk, from Porto, and Axel Witsel, from Benfica. Not just two signings from Portugal's biggest clubs, but also the first black players to be bought by a team whose fans former manager Dick Advocaat once said would not tolerate black players.
So a significant step both in a football sense, but also in an ethical one. Bringing in two players of such outstanding talent could go some way to tackling racist prejudices at the club in Russia who give the most cause for concern. It perhaps is no coincidence, too, that a state bankrolled club in effect with a huge problem with racism should sign two black players. Russian authorities are desperate to eliminate racism with the World Cup six years' away.
As well as helping tackle that problem, Hulk and Witsel will add hugely to Zenit's European challenge this term. Witsel's skill and tenacity in midfield will give the Russian team added strength and control in the middle of the park. And Hulk too, gives similar qualities further up the pitch. Skillful, strong, imaginative and a great finisher, the Brazilian will be a significant focal point for one of Europe's rising powers.
Drawn in a group with AC Milan, Anderlecht and Malaga, Zenit have a superb opportunity to progress in Europe this term. Anderlecht are useful but hardly the same level of quality, whilst both Malaga and AC Milan embarked on radical cost cutting this summer, and neither look in the best of shape. Spalletti's side should be a good bet to win their group and reach the last eight.
If they can get that far, or even to the last four, not beyond reach or their capabilities, the Russian champions would announce their arrival as a European force. At a time when many are looking to teams in Manchester, Dortmund and Paris as new forces to watch, they should not take their eyes away from the team rising in the north of Russia.