Artem Dzyuba was Russia’s top scorer last season and will be desperate to make a mark on the Champions League this term
Artem Dzyuba was Russia’s top scorer last season and will be desperate to make a mark on the Champions League this term

Zenit Saint Petersburg made light work of securing a place in the Champions League group stage by finishing as Russian champions for the eighth time.

It was an impressive march to the title by Sergei Semak’s men, who finished eight points clear of nearest rivals Spartak Moscow.

In fact, Zenit only relinquished top spot for six matchdays and sat at the summit from November 28 until the end of the campaign.

Zenit's Champions League group

Group H: Chelsea, Juventus, Zenit, Malmo

European history

After a run of Russian title successes, Zenit have become Champions League regulars — yet between 1986 and 2008 they did not qualify for the competition.

UEFA Cup winners in 2008, Zenit subsequently beat Champions League holders Manchester United in the Super Cup final.

But placed alongside Real Madrid, Juventus and BATE Borisov, they could only finish third in Group H with a single victory that season.

They have subsequently reached the last 16 on three separate occasions, most recently in the 2015-2016 campaign.

Zenit St Petersburg have dominated domestic Russian football under manager Sergei Semak
Zenit St Petersburg have dominated domestic Russian football under manager Sergei Semak

Expectations

Now qualified for the group stage for the third year in a row, Zenit will hope to reach the knockouts and go one step further than ever before.

Their defeats in the first knockout round have come to Benfica (2012), Borussia Dortmund (2014) and Benfica again (2016).

Star man: Artem Dzyuba

Even at the grand old age of 33, it is hard to look beyond beanpole striker Artem Dzyuba, whose status as Zenit’s main man is impressive considering his background with fierce rivals Spartak.

The 6ft 6in forward traded Moscow for Zenit in 2015 after hitting 38 goals in 166 appearances for the People’s Team.

Impressive loan spells at Tom Tomsk (14 in 35) and FC Rostov (20 in 43) enhanced a strike rate, which has only improved in Saint Petersburg.

Dzyuba scored four times on the final day of the 2020-21 season against FC Tambov to reach 20 goals, overtaking teammate Sardar Azmoun to win the Golden Boot for the second year in a row.

One to watch: Sardar Azmoun

Sardar Azmoun's goals will be key to Zenit St Petersburg's chances of continental success in 2021-22
Sardar Azmoun's goals will be key to Zenit St Petersburg's chances of continental success in 2021-22

Nicknamed the Iranian Messi, Azmoun has made Russia his home since leaving Sepahan in 2013.

The 26-year-old had two spells with Rubin Kazan — scoring 17 times in 77 appearances — but it is at Zenit where his goalscoring has really taken off.

He began by notching 12 times in just 16 appearances after joining halfway through the 2018-19 campaign, before scoring 21 goals the following season and adding a further 19 last term.

At 6ft 1in, Azmoun is strong in the air but deceptively quick, with impressive acceleration and dribbling ability.

The second-most expensive Iranian player ever — behind Brighton’s Alireza Jahanbakhsh — he has scored more goals in the Champions League (four) than any of his countrymen.

The boss: Sergei Semak

A rookie in coaching terms, former Zenit player Semak has made an impressive start to life in the dugout.

The 45-year-old retired in 2013 after three years with the club capping a career which also took him to CSKA Moscow, Paris Saint-Germain and Rubin Kazan.

After a spell as assistant to Luciano Spalletti and Andre Villas-Boas at Zenit, Semak served as Russia No2 to Fabio Capello and Leonid Slutsky between 2014 and 2016.

That was followed by 18 months with Ufa, where he secured seventh and sixth-place finishes.

Appointed by his current employers in 2018, he immediately guided the Saint Petersburg club to the title, before clinching the double in his second season and adding another league triumph the year after.

Usually deploying a 4-4-2 system with a double pivot, Zenit led the Russian Premier League for goals, shots and passes completed per 90 en-route to their latest title.

They will be hoping for a similarly impressive showing in the Champions League this season.

All information correct as of 10am, September 7, 2021

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