Europa League Preview: Zenit St Petersburg v Villarreal CF

Barrios in warm-weather training for Zenit | El Universal

After seeing off the challenge of Turkish outfit Fenerbahce in the last 32 of the Europa League, Zenit St Petersburg are now pitted against Spanish side, Villarreal, in the last 16.

Tactical Analysis

After a poor performance in the 1-0 defeat in the first leg of the Europa League last 32 tie against Fenerbahce, there were fears that Zenit’s shaky pre-RPL Winter break form would continue and turn into another season of disappointment in European competition for the Piter outfit. However, Zenit turned things around in the second leg against the Turkish outfit superbly. Barring a wonder goal from Mehmet Topal, Zenit handled Fenerbahce’s attacking threats impressively and Sardar Azmoun scored two well-taken goals to carry the Light-Blues through to the last 16 3-2 on aggregate.

That turnaround result could prove a turning point in Zenit’s season. On Saturday, Zenit carved out a 1-0 away victory in Yekaterinburg against Ural. Considering Ural had not lost on home soil since August and that Zenit have in previous seasons failed to take three points from trips to Yekaterinburg, this was an excellent result for Zenit. The performance was not breathtaking but was calm, composed and professionally executed.

Crucially, Zenit’s winter window transfers, Azmoun along with Ukrainian central defender Yaroslav Rakitskiy and Colombian defensive midfielder Wilmar Barrios performed excellently in the three competitive games since the winter break. This is a positive sign for the club and gives the board confidence in backing manager Sergei Semak in future transfer windows.

Villarreal, or the Yellow Submarine as they are commonly called, carved out a fine reputation both domestically and in European competition over the past 15 seasons. However, this season, the Valencian club are in 18th place in La Liga and are in danger of a shock relegation. Under normal circumstances, Villarreal would be a very tough tie for Zenit but with their current predicament, Zenit have an opportunity to progress to the Quarter Finals of a European competition for the first time since the 2014-15 season.

Team News

Zenit remain without forward Aleksandr Kokorin who is still on trial and awaiting sentencing for the well documented controversial incident with Pavel Mamaev last October. As well as being without Kokorin, Zenit are also missing veteran Italian midfielder Claudio Marchisio, attacking midfielder Aleksandr Erokhin and box-to-box midfielder Daler Kuzyaev due to injury. Whilst there is no designated comeback date assigned for both Marchisio and Erokhin, Kuzyaev, who will miss the first leg with a fractured rib, could be back fit for the second leg of the tie on 13th March, according to Transfermarkt.

Despite this, Zenit have a large number of key personnel available for the Villarreal tie and managed without the aforementioned injured trio for the last 2 games in Europe and domestically.

Key Players

Yaroslav Rakitskiy – 29-year-old Rakitskiy is already looking a fine acquisition for the Piter outfit and is quickly assuming the role of the leader over veteran Serb Brantislav Ivanovic in Zenit’s defence. The fee of GBP 9 million to bring the Ukrainian defender to Zenit is looking like money well spent. Calm when defending and a composed ball-playing defender who is comfortable bringing the ball out of defence in possession to start attacks, Rakitskiy will need to be on form if Zenit are to progress against Villarreal.

Wilmar Barrios – If Rakitskiy is looking like money well spent in defence by Zenit, Colombian Wilmar Barrios is looking equally as fine an acquisition in midfield. Signed for a fee of EUR 15 million from Boca Juniors, the Colombian has slotted into Zenit’s midfield perfectly since arriving. Barrios performs the crucial role of sitting deep in midfield in front of Zenit’s central defence and frequently dispossesses opposition attacking players. Crucially, Barrios also possesses a good passing ability and willingly drops into the central defensive position vacated by the aforementioned Rakitskiy as cover should he venture forward to start an attack. It is early days, but already the 25 year old is potentially looking like the best player to play defensive midfielder for Zenit since Anatoliy Tymoshchuk.

Artem Dzyuba – Recently named GClub Casino Number One rated player for 2018, Artem Dzyuba is Zenit’s key man in attack. The 30-year-old is the complete Centre 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 is good at off-the-ball movement into the penalty box with impressive finishing ability with both head and feet. Villarreal’s central defenders can expect to have a long and busy night trying to contain the Moscow-born forward.

Predicted Line-Up

4-4-2 – Lunev – Smolnikov, Ivanovic, Rakitskiy, Anyukov – Mak, Barrios, Ozdoev, Driussi – Dzyuba, Azmoun

Prediction

The 3-1 second leg triumph over Fenerbahce extended Zenit’s unbeaten home run in Europa League ties to 23 games (21 wins and 2 draws). Therefore, Zenit with a packed to the rafters Krestovsky stadium behind them will be looking to extend this impressive run. The Piter outfit had to travel to Yekaterinburg at the weekend, however, the game was on a Saturday afternoon and they will have had a full 6 days between games to rest and recuperate.

Villarreal, despite their league position should not be underestimated and possess some dangerous players such as Santi Cazorla, Vicente Iborra, Samuel Chukwueze and Carlos Bacca. Yet, Zenit would have been happy to draw Villarreal due to their current situation domestically and should get a positive result to take into the second leg in Spain. Zenit displayed superb composure and game management to comfortably win a tricky away game against Ural at the weekend, excellent traits required for big European games. Finally, winter window signings Raktiskiy, Barrios and Azmoun, are performing superbly and have given the whole squad a lift.

Zenit 1-0 Villarreal

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Author: Richard Pike

Wigan Athletic season ticket holder whose first memories of Russian football were TV highlights of Spartak’s 4-1 victory against Arsenal in the 2000-01 Champions League. Huge fan of the Russian Premier League, other mid-ranking European leagues and the English Football League

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