Europa League: this week's opponents

Girondins face a tough away trip to Zenit Saint-Petersburg

UEFA EUROPA LEAGUE - Tuesday, October 23, 2018 - 16:28

This Thursday the Girondins fly to Russia to take on Zenit Saint-Petersburg in their third game of the Europa League group stage. Girondins.com invited a Russian football expert to give us the low-down.

Antoine Jarrige is a contributor to Footballski.fr specialising in Russian football. He took the time to speak to us ahead of Thursday's big game.

Antoine wasted no time in warning us of the scale of the challenge facing the Girondins: "Zenit are one of the legendary clubs of post-Soviet football. After years in the shadow of Spartak Moscow and the Dynamo trio [Moscow, Kiev and Minsk in the old USSR league], the Petersburg club really became a major player in the 2000s, especially after being taken over by Gazprom. They announced their arrival on the European scene in 2008, winning the UEFA Cup. Zenit have been one of the top clubs in Russian football ever since, fighting for the title every season."

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That growing reputation has allowed them to attract some major international players: Axel Witsel, Hulk, Ezequiel Garay, Martin Skrtel, Bruno Alves, Branislav Ivanovic… to name but a few.

But recently, results haven't been going Zenit Saint-Petersburg's way. In Antoine Jarrige's opinion, this weak patch can be explained by the combination of squad turnover and stiff competition in the league: "Zenit have had a hard time in the last few seasons, particularly because of the strength of Spartak Moscow under Carrera and Lokomotiv Moscow under Semin. They've recruited a lot of international players, and the melting polt hasn't always worked out."

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The club has been forced to reinvent itself, swapping the experience and flair of Roberto Mancini for a young Russian coach. A familiar name to French football fans, Sergei Semak has put Zenit back on top.

Zenit come into this game top of the Russian league.

"After a mediocre season in 2017/2018, Zenit have got off to a very strong start. They had to fight their way through the qualifying rounds to make it into the Europa League, beating Dinamo Minsk and Molde, but now Zenit look like clear favourites to win their group.

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Top of the league at home and looking good in Europe, Zenit's season is shaping up to be a good one. But there have been a few signs of weakness, with slip-ups against Anzhi and Dynamo Moscow.

Manager Sergei Semak is determined to take this team all the way. After pulling off the remarkable feat of taking lowly FK Ufa to the Europa League qualifying spots, this time he wants to win the cup. With a very attacking and possession-oriented style of play, he has transformed Zenit into a fearsome unit.

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In terms of key players I'd have to go for Branislav Ivanovic in defence. The ex-Chelsea player is now club captain at Zenit. In the midfield, Argentina international Leandro Paredes is crucial to Sergei Semak's style of play. And, obviously, you have Artem Dzyuba up front. We all saw just how dangerous he can be at the World Cup this year."

Thanks again to Antoine Jarrige for taking the time to speak to us.