Upon his record-breaking move to Anzhi Makhachkala in 2011, Samuel Eto’o claimed that “the future of football is in Russia”. The intervening years have proved that statement false, but there was a period in the mid-noughties when it really did seem that Russia was an emerging force in European football.
CSKA Moscow became the first Russian club to lift a European trophy in 2005 and, three years later, the national team won hearts and minds on their way to the Euro 2008 semi-finals. Just a few months before that came perhaps Russia’s greatest footballing triumph to date when Zenit Saint Petersburg stood toe-to-toe with some of the world’s biggest clubs and won the 2008 UEFA Cup and Super Cup.
The team that head coach Dick Advocaat assembled that season was formidable. They had a pair of full-backs in Aleksandr Anyukov and Kim Dong-Jim (later Radek Šírl) who looked like they could run for days; the guile and metronomic passing of Anatoliy Tymoshchuk in midfield, perfectly complemented by Konstantin Zyrianov and Igor Denisov either side of him; and the imperious Pavel Pogrebnyak in the form of his life up front, wreaking havoc and creating space for Andrei Arshavin. Playing a Dutch-inspired 4-3-3, they posed a massive threat for any opposition going forward.
“Our main strength was in attack,” reflected Tymoshchuk, who captained that side. “We had an excellent understanding and we moved as one machine.” The Ukrainian midfielder lived through every minute of that campaign, blow by blow, goal by goal and win by win, a fitting symbol of Zenit’s moment of glory.
Having only qualified for the UEFA Cup thanks to Lokomotiv Moscow’s triumph in the Russian Cup, Zenit had an easy playoff victory against Standard Liège, winning 4-2 over two legs. They were drawn in Group A alongside Everton, Nürnberg, AZ Alkmaar and Larissa. Looking back over the group stage, you would be forgiven for not picking out the Blue-White-Sky Blues as future winners of the tournament. Their form was decidedly unimpressive – one win, two draws and a loss – and they were also the beneficiaries of a huge slice of luck to make it to the knock-out rounds.
Back then, the format of the UEFA Cup group stages saw each team play four matches, two at home and two away, against different opposition. After Zenit lost their final match away to Everton, they had to rely on other results going their way. Everton qualified comfortably and viewed their fourth and final fixture away to AZ as a chance to field some back-up players. “We knew Everton had sent a second-string squad there,” Tymoshchuk said, “but even so they won and ensured we qualified for the knock-out rounds from third place.”
Despite the underwhelming start in Europe, Zenit nevertheless received a timely confidence boost on the domestic front, clinching their first league title since 1984 as the spring-autumn season, then in force, came to a close.
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When the UEFA Cup started up again the following spring, the newly-crowned Russian champions were pitted against highly-rated Villarreal in the last-32. Coached by Manuel Pellegrini, the Yellow Submarine were enjoying a stellar season and would eventually finish as runners-up behind Real Madrid, their best-ever result in LaLiga.
The first leg was at the Petrovsky Stadium, a throwback arena built in a state that doesn’t exist anymore and an intimidating prospect for any visiting team. It was a tight game, fiercely contested and with chances going either way, but Zenit eventually scored in the second half when Pogrebnyak capitalised on a mix-up between goalkeeper and defender to tap into an empty net. The lead was slim but deserved, although the players knew they were in for a tough evening at El Madrigal in the second leg.
Pogrebnyak appeared to have killed off the tie when he scored again in Spain after 30 minutes, a goal that centre-back Nicolas Lombaerts suffered a season-ending injury providing the assist for. However, that is when the madness started. Roman Shirokov was the first to go when he received a second yellow for a clumsy challenge at the start of the second half, and he was followed by Advocaat, who was sent to the stands, and also Šírl late on. Forced to see out the last ten minutes with nine men, Zenit just about hung on, but once again they had ridden their luck.
Throughout the knockout rounds, Zenit rarely had a soft touch; indeed, each round got progressively more difficult. Their reward for battling through against Villarreal? A trip to the Stade Vélodrome to face another team bang in form in Marseille. Shorn of key players through injuries and suspensions, the Russians were hammered in the first leg and were lucky to only lose 3-1.
Despite the setback, hope was not lost and Zenit were not prepared to give up without a fight. “Even after losing to Marseille 3-1 we weren’t worried. We returned home calm and confident in our ability ahead of the second leg, because we played our best when we were at home.” Tymoshchuk was right and the Round of 16 second leg was in some ways a turning point in the campaign. Faced with a mountain to climb against dangerous opposition, Zenit were superb to a man that evening and played as if aware they were on the verge of something special. The result was never in doubt.
Pogrebnyak continued his scoring run in the first half with a fine finish after a beautiful flick from Arshavin. Urged on by their passionate support, the Blue-White-Sky Blues cranked up the pressure in the second half until the big man eventually broke French hearts with his all-important second strike late in the game.
Bayer Leverkusen were up next in the quarter-finals. Many teams would have gone to the BayArena and shut up shop, trying to sneak a draw or a narrow win ahead of the second leg. Not Zenit. One of the defining traits of this team was their refusal to change their style of play based on the opposition.
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The Russians were brimming with confidence and thrashed Bayer, taking an insurmountable 4-1 lead back home. It had looked finely poised at half-time, Stefan Kiessling having cancelled out Arshavin’s opener, but in the second half Zenit scored three times – through Pogrebnyak, Anyukov and Denisov – in the space of 12 minutes to put the game, and the tie, to bed. If Marseille was proof to themselves they could comfortably defeat top European opposition, the first leg against Bayer Leverkusen was a warning shot to the rest of the continent: Zenit were here and the world had better wake up.
The UEFA Cup that season was already history-making in many ways for the St Petersburg club: never before had they gone so deep in Europe and never before had they knocked out such high-profile clubs. Even still, the semi-final presented yet another step-up in terms of magnitude: Bayern Munich. As Tymoshchuk quite rightly said, the mere fact that the German giants were competing in this tournament was strange in itself.
Although they usually set their ambitions higher, Bayern were fully motivated to win the UEFA Cup as a parting gift to Oliver Kahn, who was retiring after a storied career at the end of the season. It was a daunting task for Zenit, playing at a huge, iconic stadium against an established team of greats. However, this did not translate into any kind of nerves, as the visitors to the Allianz Arena earned a 1-1 draw, giving themselves a decent chance at home thanks to Lúcio’s own goal in the 62nd minute.
Playing under the Petrosky’s huge arching floodlights, which are as much a part of the city’s iconic skyline as Saint Isaac’s Cathedral or the Peter and Paul Fortress, Zenit were untouchable. A line-up featuring Kahn, Philipp Lahm, Bastian Schweinsteiger, Mark van Bommel, Franck Ribéry, Miroslav Klose and Luca Toni arrived confident of making it to the final but were stung four times on the counter in a hostile atmosphere.
The return of Italian striker Toni, who had scored ten goals in 11 appearances in Europe, meant the race for the competition’s leading goalscorer was an interesting subplot as well. In this, as in the game as a whole, there was simply no contest. Pogrebnyak found the net twice, either side of goals from Zyrianov and Viktor Fayzulin, as Zenit recorded arguably the most remarkable result in the club’s history. Pogrebnyak would never get the chance to win the award outright, as a booking ruled him out of the final, but the imposing striker had undoubtedly left his mark on the competition.
Tymoshchuk, in particular, was outstanding in that game, gliding over every blade of grass to snuff out Bayern’s attacks, keep his own team ticking over and look to play forward whenever possible. The team’s captain offers a fascinating insight into their mindset heading into that game: “We had a packed stadium and unbelievable support, so again we came out confident in our ability. On the eve of the match, we had a chat with the coach; he wanted to change our tactics, but we sat down together with a few players and me as the captain and decided it wasn’t worth it. We wanted to play our football. We put in an amazing performance, winning 4-0 against a legendary team of European and world football.”
It’s a testament to the difficulty of Zenit’s run that the final against Rangers was the only time they were billed as favourites. The Glasgow club had made it to Manchester on the back of the most stubborn of defences and not much more, anti-football pushed to its ultimate limit, and would provide the Russians with a different sort of test. Could they win when everyone expected them to? How would they cope with having to break a team down instead of pouncing on the counter?
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Despite the support heavily backing Rangers – it seemed like the whole of the blue half of Glasgow had descended on Manchester for the occasion – a pattern quickly emerged: Zenit in possession, probing for an opening. The players looked calm and patient, as if they knew this was to be their night. Even Advocaat didn’t feel the need for any rousing pre-match speeches.
Rangers fought as you might expect they would and for a while it seemed they might take it to extra-time. Their tree-like centre-backs gobbled up cross after cross with glee, as Zenit insisted on playing the ball in the air, perhaps forgetting their own giant upfront was suspended.
Ultimately, it needed a bit of magic from the one man most capable of providing the spark, Andrei Arshavin, who stepped up admirably in Pogrebnyak’s absence. The diminutive forward drifted inside in the 72nd minute, received a pass from Igor Denisov, and threaded the return ball through four defenders and into the onrushing midfielder’s path. Denisov barely had to break stride and slotted the ball into the back of the net.
It was Arshavin again who picked the lock for the second goal, in what was the last move of the match. Exchanging passes with Zyrianov on the edge of the box, he looked up and played Fatih Tekke in behind the Scottish defence. The Turkish international then drilled the ball to the near post, where Zyrianov had continued his run and passed it home. UEFA Cup champions, Zenit had done it.
“The emotions were amazing, unforgettable, which is how it should be when you win a trophy,” Tymoshchuk concluded. “It was a historic moment that we can be proud about every day. We made history for our club and football as a whole, and it’s such a pleasure that every one of us contributed to all that we achieved.”
Every great story deserves an epilogue, a coda to all the drama that came before. In Zenit’s case, it was the UEFA Super Cup against Manchester United. The squad was soon to be broken up, as their three best players, Arshavin, Tymoshchuk and Pogrebnyak, gained big-money transfers abroad – to varying degrees of success – but there was still time for one last hurrah against the Champions League winners. It may not have mattered so much for United, but it did for Zenit – it mattered a lot.
Pogrebnyak headed the opener on the stroke of half-time at the Stade Louis II in Monaco – no player deserved it more after missing out on the final – and then new signing Danny, who would go on to captain Zenit to further domestic success, doubled their advantage in the second half. Nemanja Vidić managed to pull one back for the European champions, but it was too little, too late. Zenit had claimed the scalp of one of the biggest clubs in the world yet again and proved that, for this season at least, they more than deserved their place at Europe’s top table.
By Joe Terry @joeterry1508