Luciano Spalletti’s Zenit go 10 points clear at the top of the Russian Premier League after overcoming stern resilience from the defending champions. As is customary when top teams go head-to-head, this was a scrappy, scruffy and foul-littered affair.
The tone was set early on, when Lasha Salukvadze’s ambitious carry was met by Tomáš Hubočan’s poised bicep. The Georgian failed to recover from the incident, and Yevgeni Balyaikin was subbed on mere seconds after the referee’s first peep.
This proved handy for Zenit, who tormented the Russian U21 international throughout the remainder of the game. His penchant for trying to cut infield or take the ball upfield as soon as possible wasn’t working, allowing Danny and Aleksandr Kerzhakov to seize control.
The other stretch of the pitch was a graveyard: Cristian Ansaldi, subdued but steely, bolted the lacklustre Vladimir Bystrov, and Alan Kasaev did all his work infield for Rubin.
The home side were growing frustrated by the determined and commanding Rubin backline, although several frustration hoofs – often brought by their most enterprising defender Fernando Meira as Rubin pressed/sat off in a 4-4-2 – had Sergey Ryzhikov zooming off his line to clear.
Mainly, Zenit were frustrated by the fact that Rubin were more fluid and hasty in the final-third. Although Gökdeniz Karadeniz was well-tracked by Nicolas Lombaerts, Sergei Semak pulled the strings and made Rubin tick high up the pitch.
With Zenit’s formation a jumble of 4-1-4-1 and 4-3-2-1, Semak ran riot in the gap, aided by the particularly poor game Igor Denisov was enduring – he was too frequently easily spun, plodding in possession, and fouling more than most.
Although the St. Petersburg side had Rubin’s defensive-midfielders in a mousetrap, the visitors targeted Zenit’s left-side. With Hubočan timid and Danny often late in tracking back, Semak, Bystrov and Balyaikin engineered clever triangles.
Yet for all this canniness, Vyacheslav Malafeev didn’t have a save to make. Some of the away side’s shots were skied, others blocked – ultimately, Rubin had the better of the first half play, and failed to take advantage.
Bystrov’s ineffectuality was brought to an end in the 33rd minute as Alessandro Rosina entered the field as a sub. The Italian offered way more penetration on the right, and the hosts took the lead not long after.
Kasaev had started to veer more towards and stay on the right-hand side at this point – collecting passes there, or standing as the decoy when Balyaikin launched a dummy overlap, before himself dropping a shoulder and jinxing inside if the ball founds its way too him.
In first half injury time, Denisov at last did something effective, wave-breaking superbly. The subsequent long-diagonal was swift, Danny trapped, before delivering his favourite method of pass, a scoop with the right foot’s little toe, for Konstantin Zyrianov.
The left-footed volley was bulletted towards goal prior to scrambled closing. Ryzhikov parried Zyrianov’s effort, only for Kerzhakov to return-steer it into the net with the confidence and power of Rafael Nadal.
The second half of the Russian Premier League’s joint weekend highlight – Spartak take on CSKA in a Moscow derby later today – was a bit more open, although set-pieces were still coming to nothing.
Zenit in particular had a plethora of corners, but all their short tries were guarded, and the resultant outswung ball was cleared by the first line of defence in a swamped box. Meanwhile, the home side’s free-kicks were too often directed straight at the wall.
So it was little surprise when the second goal came from another Zenit counter, and a hopeful ball across the box. Hubočan had crossed somewhat aimlessly, and thus, Ansaldi obviously expected his erratic goalkeeper – who’d spent the game flapping at every set-piece – to come and collect the ball. He didn’t, it trickled harmlessly across No Man’s Land, and Kerzhakov crept in and placed his header in the corner for 2-0.
The celebration was just as ostentatious as the one he produced for his first strike – performed less for himself and the fans, and more to let the watching and waiting Aleksandr Bukharov – recently purchased from Rubin – know that the feisty livewire isn’t giving up his starting position without a fight.
Obafemi Martins soon arrived to make his debut for the visitors, instigating positional changes for others. Semak went over to the left, Andrei Gorbanets to the right, and Turkish international Karadeniz played off the Nigerian.
Although Martins was isolated and anonymous, Karadeniz thrived in a new role. His jinxes and dribbles were mesmerising, but unfortunately for the Turk, the thick-walls piled on the box-edge nullified the shots he cleverly dropped a shoulder to make.
But as they frantically searched for something, anything, Rubin’s limitations were plain for all to see. Zenit, led by the infectiously confidence-ridden Rosina, exploited the fresh space without ever troubling the ‘keeper.
The former Torino man is a great weapon at Spalletti’s disposal, and pivotal to his side’s cause. Cesare Prandelli – are you watching?
Russian coach Dick Advocaat certainly was, afforded red carpet treatment by his former employers. Kerzhakov got his point across bluntly enough, as did his team, who surely can’t squander their grip on the Championship trophy now.