Manchester United will look to wrap up their second trophy in less than a month as the reigning UEFA Champions League holders take on UEFA Cup holders Zenit St. Petersburg in the UEFA Super Cup on Friday at Stade Louis II in Monaco.
Last year, European champ AC Milan took home their fifth Super Cup crown – and a permanent trophy – by defeating UEFA Cup champ Sevilla 3-1.
Manchester United are making their third appearance in the UEFA Super Cup, with their previous two appearances coming in 1991 and 1999. In the 1991 edition, they defeated European Cup winners Red Star Belgrade 1-0, with only the first leg of what was then a two-legged competition being played due to the political issues going on in Yugoslavia at the time. Eight years later, fresh off of their treble success, they were on the opposite end of the same scoreline against UEFA Cup winners Lazio, thanks to a 35th minute strike by Marcelo Salas.
Meanwhile, this is the first appearance for Zenit, who are still relative newcomers to the European stage, as the beginning of their first Champions League campaign awaits in the coming weeks.
This is the second time in four years that English and Russian sides have faced off in the Super Cup, as Liverpool defeated CSKA Moscow 3-1 in extra time in the 2005 edition.
United haven’t exactly gotten off to a flying start this season, but all the same, they don’t have a negative result on their ledger as of yet, as they opened their competitive campaign with a penalty shootout triumph over Portsmouth in the Community Shield, and after a disappointing 1-1 home draw against Newcastle opened their Premier League campaign, the Red Devils head to Monaco on the heels of a 1-0 away win over Portsmouth on Monday.
Of course, Sir Alex Ferguson is still without the services of the force behind United’s double success last season, Cristiano Ronaldo, who’s still sidelined thanks to off-season
knee ankle surgery and won’t be available until, well, no one really knows right now, though his return to light training is an encouraging sign that he could be back sooner rather than later.
His absence does leave a big hole on the attacking front, and he’s not the only injury concern for Fergie right now, as Michael Carrick is currently shelved due to an ankle injury, and Owen Hargreaves will be facing a race against time to be fit for Friday’s match. However, the skipper can take heart in the fact that the Wayne Rooney-Carlos Tevez partnership is intact again, and he should be able to count on both Nani (suspended v Portsmouth) and Ryan Giggs (hamstring).
While United are just getting into their new domestic league campaign, Dick Advocaat’s Zenit side are more than halfway through theirs, and they face an uphill battle if they want to retain their league crown. After 19 of 30 rounds, sixth-placed Zenit sit on 28 points, 11 behind leader Rubin Kazan, and four points behind third-place Amkar for a Champions League qualifying round slot.
Just as United spent much of the summer dealing with a transfer saga involving their star man, the same has been the case for Zenit. Andrei Arshavin was one of the key parts of their run through the UEFA Cup, which saw them just sneak out of the group stage as a third-place team and squeak by Villarreal (round of 32) and Marseille (round of 16) to reach the quarterfinals, where they really turned it on, routing Bayer Leverkusen and Bayern Munich before dominating Rangers in a 2-0 final victory.
Arshavin showcased his playmaking skills throughout the competition and parlayed that into an impressive performance at Euro 2008 for Russia, and as a result, the last couple of months have seen Arshavin almost daily being in the transfer pages. Good for me and having something to write about regularly in the transfer roundup, not so much for Zenit, or for his form. Even in the midst of all of the hoopla surrounding his future, Arshavin has been in Zenit’s lineup for most of the season, but he has contributed only three goals and four assists in the league thus far. Of course, a busy schedule can’t help much, but it doesn’t help to have such distractions surrounding you.
But contrary to what it may seem, Arshavin isn’t the only top-class talent in Zenit’s side, or for that matter, Russia’s, and it’s a testament to the quality of the side that they still have the most goals of any side in the Russian Premier League (32), even with Arshavin off last season’s pace and striker Pavel Pogrebnyak – who was the joint-leading scorer in the UEFA Cup with Bayern Munich’s Luca Toni (10 goals) – being limited this season due to a knee injury suffered in a pre-Euro 2008 friendly that kept him from participating in Euro 2008.
Pogrebnyak is fit, however, and he’ll be a major worry for United’s defense, along with versatile midfielder Konstantin Zyryanov, who leads the team in league goals with six and is the reigning Russian Footballer of the Year.
The Super Cup should also see the debut of Zenit’s own new Portuguese star – who actually happens to be a former teammate of Ronaldo’s from their days at Sporting – in attacking midfielder Danny Alves, whom the club just signed from Dinamo Moscow for a Russian-record 30m. So, whether or not Arshavin is in the lineup on Friday, Zenit will have a team ready to give United’s defense a stiff test.
With that in mind, Sir Alex will not only be hoping that his backline stands tall, but also that United can create plenty of chances of their own. A new striker is expected to join the ranks at some point between now and next Monday, but regardless of if that signing happens quickly enough for the new man to be in the lineup for Friday (which might be a bit of a stretch), making Zenit’s backline work shouldn’t be an issue.
And if there is a weakness for the UEFA Cup holders, it’s the backline, which has allowed 24 goals in 19 league matches. Not a shocking total, but it is one of the poorer numbers in the league (tied for 10th among 16 teams).
You do have to wonder if or how cautious SAF will be when it comes to his squad selections, given that he certainly doesn’t want to rush anyone back from injury or risk getting more key players hurt, but expect a strong side to take the pitch against Zenit.
Both sides will definitely be taking this one seriously, and you can expect both sides to put their best foot forward. For United, it’ll be another opportunity to add to their trophy haul and provide a stern test against a quality opponent and a test against a potential future Champions League opponent, while for Zenit, with their Champions League debut just a few weeks away, it’ll be just the kind of opponent they need to face with some of the best of the best looming.
Who do you think will win? Can United make it two for two this season and keep Sir Alex’s target of seven trophies on track, or will Zenit take their biggest scalp yet?