Yesterday evening, Zenit St. Petersburg continued their unstoppable march towards the Russian title, beating Rostov on the road.
Luciano Spalletti’s side overcame a stern test in the form of the flourishing Rostov, tasting another success on the ground where they secured the Russian Cup two months back.
After vanquishing both Spartak and CSKA Moscow at their Olimp-2 stadium, I had hoped to see some study resistance from the hosts.
Perhaps this confidence was misplaced – a 3-2 loss at Dinamo Moscow acted as precursor to this true acid-test, a defeat characterised by daft defensive lapses, and two moments of individual genius from Roman Adamov and Igor Lebendenko.
The latter has thoroughly impressed this season, teaming superbly with Dušan Anđelković down the left. But another to have caught the eye, Bosnia’s Mersudin Ahmetović, settled for a spot on the bench here.
Unsurprisingly, the home side sought to attack down that aforementioned potent flank.
The tactic involved Lebedenko cutting inside on his right foot, carrying it fastly but aimlessly towards the right-channel, thus disguising the return ball to the Serb’s overlap.
From there, the ball was pumped into the box, where Adamov offered aerial presence. Rostov were all too keen to use their striker’s forehead, and damagingly, expended too many touches on lumps upfield.
This was a shame as Rostov tended to start graciously from the back, goalkeeper Anton Amelchenko – one of two Belarussian custodians on show – passing to whoever came to collect from him first.
With a counter-attacking Zenit expending just as much energy in their retreats, Adamov was constantly thwarted. In frustration, he dropped further to get and work the ball, making it difficult for Rostov to leave their own half.
Zenit thus saw a lot of play for a side looking to play on the break, and had various options at the ready when launching. The most-utilised was Alessandro Rosina, attacking the space Anđelković abandoned.
Equally handy and hungry were Roman Shirokov and Viktor Fayzulin, the pair of whom drove forwards with the ball centrally: the former making energetic runs, albeit ones that often resulted in wayward shots, and Faizulin seeking to place through-passes.
Last but not least was Danny. Stationed on the left-flank, the Portuguese international played with a canniness all too rare in the Russian top-flight.
With Anđelković lunging forwards at will, Aleksandr Cherkes and the centre-backs were forced to remain deep, shifting across to contain Rosina’s enthusiastic shuttles.
However, Danny’s presence meant Cherkes had one eye on the chalk too, hence how Aleksandr Anyukov, Shirokov and Rosina initially engineered lots for the visitors from the other side.
To be fair to Cherkes, he at least ensured his side of the pitch was closed down. Resultantly, Danny drifted infield to shake off the shackles, taking advantage of Faizulin’s more withdrawn presence.
This ploy attempted to lure one of Rostov’s defensive-midfielders away from Zenit’s final-third – positioning that actually handicapped Rostov as Adamov, Akimov and Lebedenko were isolated and in need of loose-ball winning support.
Build-up play was especially intricate from the away side, but occasionally, the hosts looked inspired in their concoctions too.
Alas, neither side was able to magic end-product with the Jabulani ball – one which Anton Amelchenko particularly struggled to deal with.
However, team talks, tactics and scorelines were altered in first-half injury time. Rosina shimmied behind the left-back to square across the six-yard-box, and like clockwork, in slid Aleksandr Kerzhakov.
Instantly, Rostov’s second half gameplan was amended – off went the stupendously ineffective Akimov, replaced by Aleksandr Pavlenko.
The on-loan Spartak man enabled coach Oleh Protasov to field a 4-2-3-1, but oddly, he stuck by the floundering Christmas tree system.
Rostov at least now attacked with more gusto, still defending with similar energy too, but ultimately, this led to their downfall.
Spalletti positioned the St. Petersburg banks deeper, allowing Danny to bring for himself rather than receiving it in more advanced and swamped territory. The Portuguese star now had a greater range of passing and angles at his disposal.
Rostov were still keen to use Adamov’s verticality though, lively bobbers Lebedenko and Pavlenko hovering nearby to collect his knock-downs.
However, Meira and Lombaerts marshalled him superbly, forcing dwells on the ball and inviting Zenit to position two Chinese and Berlin rivalling walls.
One such Adamov hold in a cul-de-sac led to Zenit’s second goal. A rob and swift early scoop to the D found Danny darting there through a ring of four blue shirts. The trap was instant, the half-volley equally speedy and sublime, and the scoreline doubled.
Hereafter, the game petered out somewhat, save for Alexandru Gaţcan joining Shirokov in the erratic shooting stakes, and Zenit becoming overly baroque in their one-touch passing moves.
Perhaps the Jabulani was culpable; Lebedenko, for one, is usually lethal from range, but was way off-target too often here. Tellingly, Rostov curled all centrally-located free-kicks towards the left-hand side of the box for an assisting header sideways rather than attempting direct shots – a clear indication that the ball couldn’t be trusted.
Seeking to fully stifle resurgence, Spalletti brought Aleksei Ionov in to play as a traditional, Anđelković-corking right-winger.
For all of Rosina’s toil on the right, the left-footer more often than not veers inside. But with Ionov, Spalletti had someone to permanently pin the Serb back.
At last, Rostov opted to go 4-2-3-1, and immediately looked more dangerous. Dragan Blatnjak offered presence and hunger on the right, while the floaty Ahmetović added more grace in the striking position.
Late on, relatively inconsequential goals were exchanged. Faizulin’s resembled Danny’s effort for 2-0, and epitomised Zenit’s superior technical ability. Lebedenko, on the other hand, won and converted a – cheap – penalty after nutmegging Anyukov and drawing a tug.
It finished 3-1, so Zenit maintain their seemingly insurmountable nine-point lead; one which briefly escalated to 12 points, this game kicking off half-hour before Rubin’s defeat of Dinamo Moscow.
Slap-bang at the season’s halfway point, the pair face-off next weekend. Zenit might be hamstrung by a tricky midweek Champions League visit to Bucharest though. Liga I silver-medallists Unirea Urziceni await.
Defeat drops Rostov to 7th spot, but they only shy from the Europa League spots courtesy of weak goal difference. Scoring remain a problem, as does an indifferent home record of four wins and losses apiece.