Since taking over as manager of Zenit St. Petersburg, former Rangers and Dutch national team coach Dick Advocaat has led the club to new heights, including their first national top-flight championship in more than two decades last season.
Now, along with chasing a title repeat, the reigning Russian champions are chasing European hardware as well, and might be two Bundesliga sides away from a place in the UEFA Cup final.
First up, Zenit face Bayer Leverkusen in the UEFA Cup quarterfinals, and if they can come out on top, the last obstacle in the way of a place in the final at City of Manchester Stadium could be Bayern Munich, if the Bundesliga table-toppers overcome Getafe.
While Michael Skibbe’s side are in the midst of trying to catch up with Bayern as the Bundesliga hits the home stretch, Zenit’s 2008 season has just begun, as they’re only two matches into their 32-match league campaign.
However, the four-month gap between the end of their previous league season in November and the start of their new season, hasn’t hurt Zenit in their quest for European glory.
After sneaking into the round of 32 by finishing third in Group A behind Everton and FC Nurnberg, Zenit bounced Villareal on away goals after a 2-2 aggregate draw (1-0 Zenit in Russia, 2-1 Villareal in Spain). In the round of 16, Zenit were looking almost done and dusted after falling behind 3-0 away to Marseille in the first leg of their tie. But, a late goal by Andrei Arshavin gave Zenit a lifeline, and in the second leg, Pavel Pogrebnyak was the hero, scoring both goals, including a 76th minute decider, in a 2-0 victory that sent Zenit through on away goals once again.
As for Bayer, their road to the quarterfinals was a little smoother. After finishing atop Group E, Bayer faced 2000 winners Galatasaray in the round of 32, and after a 0-0 draw in Istanbul, a 5-1 rout at the BayArena booked a tie with Bundesliga rivals Hamburg SV.
After a 1-0 win in the home leg, Bayer took command in the second leg by taking a 2-1 (3-1) lead inside an hour, but had to hold on for an away goals win after Hamburg took a late 3-2 lead.
Bayer have been an excellent home side this term, and have won all five of their UEFA Cup home ties, and lost only once in 12 home ties in the league (to Bayern Munich).
The first leg being in Germany could make all the difference in who advances. If Bayer fail to use their home prowess to their advantage, they might be done for when they head to Russia. While they’ve conceded only eight at home this season (league and UEFA Cup), they’ve conceded more than three times as many away from home.
While they’ve had some issues with letting goals in at times, Bayer have been pretty good about scoring all season, with forwards Stefan KieÃŸling and Theofanis Gekas both in double digits in goals, and Swiss midfielder Tranquillo Barnetta has chipped in greatly both on the scoring and providing end.
Zenit have a few playmakers of their own, as well, so Bayer’s off-and-on defense will be greatly tested. Besides Arshavin (the 2006 Russian Footballer of the Year) and Pogrebnyak, the man that Bayer must watch out for is midfielder Konstantin Zyryanov, the reigning Russian Footballer of the Year. Zyryanov is listed as a defensive midfielder, but has quite the scoring touch, having netted nine league goals last season.
This should be an interesting tie to watch, because we’ll be seeing some of the above names making an impact for their national teams at Euro 2008, and because a Bayer victory could mean a semifinal showdown with rivals Bayern Munich that’s sure to be intense.
Will Bayer book that showdown, or will Zenit crush those hopes? We’ll know on April 10, after the second leg in St. Petersburg.