Two red cards, a goal disallowed just as play was about to be restarted, tons of show-boating, and a delay caused by excessive flare-smoke: all this, yet Zenit’s round 20 victory was still boringly routine.
In fairness to the visitors, Sergei Kornilenko’s recent departure and Artem Dzyuba’s absence was bound to prove blunting, and despite dropping points and positions by the week, Tom are probably content to write this match off.
Zenit didn’t exactly ooze class, but showed and used it at the right moments. Their two goals owed more to defensive mishaps, but as both came in the first half, they were able to play the second period in lesser gears.
Luciano Spalletti’s side boast an enviable quality of appearing to park the bus, only to dupe us all and illustrate their stranglehold on the game by launching unstoppable counter-attacks.
Both sides started with what were effectively 4-4-1-1 formations. However, Zenit’s was more potent in attack, fluid, and sharper on the break.
They tried inviting Tom on by indulging in melina amongst their deep-sitting defence, but the visitors either pressed by rota, or the relentless ball of energy that was Alexsandr Kharitonov.
Tom sought to attack on the floor via the silky feet of Kharitonov, Sergei Skoblyakov, and Goran Maznov. Their triangles were neat on paper, but snatched and hurried in practice.
Alternatively, livewire new signing Daisuke Matsui showed flashes of incision when fed to run at Tomáš Hubočan, but his one trick of cutting inside onto his left foot soon allowed Roman Shirkov to lie in wait and halt his advances.
Shirokov had a good match deep in the heart of Zenit’s midfield, though any pass he attempted that stretched beyond ten yards was often easily thwarted by the white-shirted visitors.
Tom’s other on-loan newbie, Nikola Petković, offered width on the left-side from full-back, while Dmitri Michov was the midfield hustle that contrasted with the – infrequently seen – grace of Kim.
That the Korean was unable to pick his passes at will owed largely to the energy Zenit put into pressing the ball. Aleksandr Bukharov was particularly hard-working, never allowing anyone near him a moment’s peace.
But the deadlock was broken so early on in the game that a different pattern of play hadn’t been allowed to develop. The goal came when Petković clumsily bundled Danilo Lazović’s step inside, and the felled Serb dusted himself off to take the set-piece. A right-footed driven cross easily evaded a badly-positioned two-man wall, hanging at the awkward height that’s neither tummy nor head. Kim Nam-Il for one was certainly stumped by the difficult free-kick, the ball brushing his scalp and bouncing in off the unfortunate Dmitri Smirnov, who was stood behind him.
As half-time neared, both Spalletti and Valeri Nepomniachi changed formations. Realising that all the play was centrally-aligned, the pair tried instigating a stalemate by switching to 4-5-1.
This increased the fluidity of Tom’s movement in the final-third, but unfortunately, left the Siberians exposed to game-killing counter-attacks such as the one that saw Bukharov score Zenit’s second.
Danny, like Vladimir Bystrov, hovered on the fringes of the game. Both were eventually substituted (the former at half time, with one eye on the midweek Europa League tie at Anderlecht), though there were flashes of their genius.
Both players are masterful in their own right – carrying the ball at pace and knowing where they want to give it well before making the pass being a shared attribute.
It was the Portuguese international who carried that particular threat in first half injury-time, bringing from his own half to push the away side’s defence into their own box.
Smirnov, clearly frustrated at being dictated to in this way, zoomed out, slipped, and left his colleagues bare to deal with the sharp through-ball. Sergei Pareiko was quick off his line, but Bukharov was quicker and made it 2-0.
Konstantin Zyryanov added guile, ghosts and invention to the centre of midfield as Zenit went 4-1-4-1 for the second half – the tidy bridger Roman Shirokov, sent off in injury time for flailing an arm, alongside him.
Deeper in the midfield was Sergei Semak. The ability of the former Rubin Kazan man to pick out a penetrative through-ball from anywhere on the pitch is still arguably unrivalled by any other player in Russia.
The St. Petersburg side, still unbeaten in the league this season, comfortably held on to their lead, and could have increased it were they not guilty of trying to plaster the cake in so much icing.
The full-backs were finally allowed to push forward as the game petered out. Aleksandr Anyukov had put in a bruising shift at right-back, and relished the greater freedom after Smirnov collected a second yellow card, reducing the visitors to ten men.
Tom thus ended the match in a 3-3-1-2 – a natural evolution from the 2-4-2-1-1 they’d started to edge forward with on Pareiko’s long goal-kicks.
For all their tenacity in the opponent’s half, Nepomniachi’s side had a paucity of cutting-edge up top. They did put the ball in the net mind – Klimov shoving Lukovic into an own-goal for that aforementioned late flagged-foul.
Zenit were never shaken out of playing on auto-pilot, and Aleksandr Kerzhakov came on to entertain a crowd bored enough to wheel out the flares with some fancy but pointless pirouettes.
With just ten rounds of the Russian Premier League season remaining, Zenit St. Petersburg hold a nine-point lead over second-placed Rubin – and have a game in hand.
Meanwhile, woeful form on the road has seen Tom Tomsk fall to ninth – 12 points clear of the relegation zone (both Krylya and Tom’s fellow Siberians Novosibirsk look doomed), but now four points adrift from the final Europa League spot.