Zenit Saint Petersburg continue their march through the Champions League group stage after beating FC Valencia 2-0 on match day five. Zenit’s last match in the Champions League group stage will see them face off against Belgium’s KAA Gent, and a victory would make Zenit only the fifth team, and the second from Russia, to claim six out of six wins in the UEFA Champions League group stage—the other teams were Spartak Moscow, Paris Saint-Germain, FC Barcelona, and Real Madrid.
Zenit’s success in the group stage contrasts with their league campaign—the Saint Petersburgers currently find themselves in fourth spot of the Russian Football Premier League, trailing league leaders CSKA Moscow by seven points after 16 games.
The only constant for Zenit has been the performance of the Brazilian star winger Hulk. Hulk joined Zenit from FC Porto in September 2012 in a deal that was worth £32 million. However, the imposing winger only managed seven goals in 18 games in his first season at the club, and his play often seemed detatched from his teammates as the Brazilian struggled to adjust to the climate and to the playing style in Russia. The 2013-14 season saw a big improvement as Hulk managed 14 goals in 23 games. Then, in 2014-15, Hulk once again showed progress, by scoring 15 goals in 28 games, and leading Zenit to their first Russian championship since 2012.
Winning the championship with Zenit did wonders for Hulk’s relationship with the club. The arrival of Hulk and teammate Axel Witsel, had sparked controversy in Russia when the ultra group Landscrona wrote an open letter called the “Selection 12 manifesto” to the club stating that the acquisition of black players was against the national identity of the club. The controversial letter, as well as the fact that several Russian players—including team captain Igor Denisov—were unhappy about Hulk’s wage, made it difficult for Hulk to integrate himself into the squad.
It was, therefore, no surprise that Hulk’s assimilation into Zenit’s game took time, as the winger not only had to come to terms with the usual obstacles of moving from one country to another, but also had to win the hearts and minds of the Zenit fans who were openly hostile upon his arrival.
It seems that Hulk’s performances in the league last season finally led to full acceptance of the player, and indeed Hulk has become the new face of the club. In February, Hulk signed a new contract with Zenit, which will see him remain at the club until 2019. Then, this summer, Hulk was the main star in several promotional videos for the club, in which he was portrayed as having super human strengths.
The message was clear; the departure of Aleksandr Kerzhakov and Andrey Arshavin meant that Hulk was now the main star and leader of this squad. While his teammates have struggled at times this season, Hulk has been the biggest attraction of the Russian Premier League. Having played 15 games in the RFPL, Hulk has already scored seven goals, including the possible goal of the season against Anzhi Makhachkala, and has given an astonishing twelve assists, winning a whoscored.com score of 8.17. Hulk’s Champions League performance is equally astonishing; the Brazilian winger has managed three goals, and four assists with an almost unbelievable whoscored.com average rating of 8.79, which makes him the second highest rated player in the group stage after Bayern Munich’s Thiago Alcántara, who has a score of 9.1 in four matches.
Hulk remains a prolific goal scorer, but this season he has also been far more of a team player, which is demonstrated in his assist rates. In the past Hulk has been accused of relying far too much on his powerful shot and his speed, but this season shows that he has added the ability to transform his teammates into better players.
Indeed, Hulk, in many ways, is responsible for Zenits success in the Champions League, and more importantly for the fact that they still have a fighting chance to qualify for next season’s edition—despite their group stage heroics the Russians remain a long shot to win the Champions League, and will therefore have to finish in the top two in Russia.
Hulk aside, Zenit especialy have struggled with consistency in the Russian Premier League: In the past, Champions League victories were often followed by mediocre performances in domestic competitions; yet Zenit are now only two points behind Russia’s biggest surprise team FC Rostov.
Rostov, however, are struggling financially, and it is expected that Rostov will be forced to sell players in the winter in order to balance their budget. This would make it difficult for the club to maintain their current competitive level. CSKA Moscow has also struggled recently, and a series of wins by Zenit could propel them back into the top two in the Russian Premier League. Zenit may even challenge them for the title in May, especially if Hulk continues to perform as well as he has in the past few weeks.
About the author – Manuel Veth