After 11 rounds of a 34-game season, the Russian Premier League is having a breather. The campaign continues later this month, and top of the perch, with a game to spare, are Zenit St Petersburg.
Life’s going well in Eastern Europe for Luciano Spalletti right now, with seven wins, three draws, three goals against and a Russian Cup victory to his name.
Taking to the Italian’s 4-2-3-1 like the proverbial water-finding duck, St. Petersburg are blessed with some of Europe’s most mesmerising midfielders.
Chief among them is €30m man Danny. Exceptional technique, poise, pace, composed finishing and killer through-passes make the Portuguese international Zenit’s key player.
Alas, the long-haired superstar will miss several games when the league resumes due to World Cup selection. Currently one of the continent’s most in-form players, Portugal’s gain is his club’s side loss.
Also absent will be off-season Serbian signing Danko Lazović. Again, a nation’s gain is very much Zenit’s loss – since arriving from PSV, Lazović has been a goal-assisting force from the left-flank.
Slovakia, meanwhile, will be utilising the services of Tomáš Hubočan. Underestimating the left-back’s attacking contributions overlooks a vital component of the 2008 UEFA Cup-winning juggernaut.
Italy feature in South Africa, but one native who won’t be in their 23-man squad is Alessandro Rosina. Capped 32 times by the U21 side and tipped for the top from a tender age, Rosina’s star has dimmed somewhat.
Nevertheless, the energy and vision he displays from the bench is pivotal to the Zenit cause. Handed a rare start at CSKA Moscow, the former quality inspired Sine-Belo-Golubyye to a season-shaping 2-0 triumph.
Spalletti can be thankful that Russia floundered against Slovenia in a qualification play-off, at least.
Their participation would have shorn the tactician of Vladimir Bystrov, Roman Shirokov and possibly the wizardry of young Viktor Fayzulin too.
Spalletti’s inclusion of Bystrov may still irk supporters (who have never forgiven him for joining Spartak Moscow), but his precise box-bursts and goals have elevated St Petersburg to the division’s zenith.
Hungary’s stumble in the qualification process will also benefit the Neva River outfit. The set-piece quality and all-round tenacity of Huszti Szabolcs renders him pivotal to Spallett’s domestic plans.
The problem in having and relying on so many attacking-midfielders is that Zenit have minimal room for tactical variation.
With only diminutive livewire Aleksandr Kerzhakov to field as a striker (Maksim Kanunnikov remains an untested rookie), injuries could make the already low-scoring leaders fully impotent.
Of course, Spalletti is the master of functioning sans strikers. It was he who concocted the 4-6-0 formation while at Roma; engineered to accomodate the mercurial fake forward Francesco Totti.
As for Zenit’s rivals, Identity crises, World Cup call-ups, over-reliance on individual Ukrainians, and defensive deficiencies continue to cause problems.
So if a certain Merseyside club don’t decide to break the bank and go with the trend of hiring Italian nous, Zenit are odds-on to win the 2010 championship.