[dropcap]A[/dropcap]lthough the performances of Barcelona and Arsenal captured the mainstream imagination in Tuesday night’s Champions League action, Russian outfit Zenit St Petersburg also put in an excellent display to dispatch Valencia 2-0.
André Villas-Boas’ men entered the clash with the Spaniards knowing that progression through to the knockout rounds was already secured, but the victory on home soil confirmed top spot would also be ascertained.
The win continued Zenit’s perfect record in Group H this term, while a victory over Belgian side Genk in the final group game would assure the eastern European side became one of only a few teams in the competition’s history to complete a perfect pool phase.
A number of telling facets became apparent in the game and highlighted the contrasting fortunes of the respective sides this season.
Zenit a slick unit in possession and a joy to watch
The hosts not only beat a respectable Valencia side, but completely outplayed them in the process, with Zenit’s attacking play and ability on the ball an enjoyable watch.
Inspired by Portuguese veteran and club captain Danny, the Russian side passed their way through the visiting midfield and defence with consummate ease and put on a spectacle for their supporters.
Villas Boas’ men were better all over the park, with their brand of one-touch football set to be difficult for any future Champions League knockout opponent to contain.
It is clear that the Zenit side are buying into their ambitious manager’s ideologies and they will be a tough proposition in the next stage of the competition.
Valencia off the boil in attack and a shambles at centre-half
A couple of weeks ago in La Liga, I watched Los Che travel to Balaídos and destroy high-flying Celta Vigo 5-2.
On that day, the link-up play between skipper Dani Parejo and scintillating striker Paco Alcácer was exceptional, while Nuno’s men looked like a side full of talent and creativity.
Against Zenit it was like watching a different team, with Alcácer isolated in attack and the Valencia midfield devoid of any inspiration on the front foot.
Meanwhile, at the back the Spaniards sorely missed German powerhouse Shkodran Mustafi.
While Aymen Abdennour won his fair share of aerial contests, his positional sense and decision making were continually not at the required standard.
His partner Rúben Vezo had a nightmare outing, with culpability for the first goal and his evening being cut short by a calamitous red card.
With Valencia no longer able to rely on the assurance and authority of Nicolás Otamendi, Mustafi’s importance to the side cannot be understated.
Hulk and Dzyuba impress
Although Danny may well have been the pick of the Zenit attacking players due to his footballing intelligence and sublime first touch, the rest of the home side’s offensive unit also stood out.
Brazilian Hulk showed a confidence that is not always apparent when he plays for his country and gave young full-back João Cancelo a torrid time.
The former Porto attacker’s power, trickery and persistence were a constant feature of his side’s forward play and as such the gun-shy Brazil national team should be looking at integrating Hulk into their starting XI in the near future – even if he does play in the same position as Neymar.
Artyom Dzyuba meanwhile took his goal tally in this season’s Champions League to five with another strike here, but it was his hold-up play and movement off the ball that most caught the eye.
The regular starting centre forward for Russia, the Zenit man has all the weaponry to be a real handful at Euro 2016 and at the World Cup on home soil two years later.
The way Danny, Hulk and Oleg Shatov played off Dzyuba was impressive, with the late-blooming striker proving himself as comfortable at club football’s pinnacle.
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