UEFA Cup Final – Reflections
I’ve had some time now to reflect on yesterday’s final and despite my initial displeasure with it, I have to credit Walter Smith for not tinkering with had been a winning formula. He stuck to his tried and tested 4-1-4-1 formation and had his team play a conservative first half, soaking up the pressure Zenit was exerting.
Steven Davis was the Man of the Match for Rangers, he was everywhere, particularly in the second half, Jean-Claude Darcheville was largely isolated up front and aside from a couple of late aerial challenges and raking his studs down Denisov’s thigh, contributed very little to the match.
Zenit boss Dick Advocaat stayed with a 4-3-3 formation. For me, the Man of the Match was Andrei Arshavin. Once he began to get the ball at his feet a bit more in the second half, he showed creativity, vision and great bursts of pace that the Rangers defenders had a hard time dealing with. I thought he and striker Fatih Tekke had a hard time developing any sort of understanding and Tekke’s timing and touches often let him down. That said, Tekke still managed to play an integral part of both goals so Dick Advocaat’s patience in him paid off. Tekke nodded the ball down to Denisov who then played a clever one-two with Andrei Arshavin before firing home the first goal of the match. I thought Tekke might have been subbed off for Alejandro Dominguez around the 65-70 minute mark but Advocaat stuck with his starting XI right to the end.
The second goal again came through Arshavin and Tekke combined to split open the Rangers defence in stoppage time. After Arshavin played him in, Tekke slid the ball across the face of goal to Konstatin Zyryanov who side-footed it in to secure Zenit’s first European trophy.
A big shout out to both sets of fans for their part, at least inside the stadium. The Rangers fans who had the City of Manchester Stadium rocking with their now traditional “bouncy, bouncy” antics. The Zenit fans did their best to match the Rangers fans energy and noise levels despite being outnumbered. The atmosphere, particularly in the second half, was electric and I hope we see as much enthusiasm and signing in Moscow for the Champions League final.
It was great to see the trophy and medal presentation take place in the stands at it has been done in the past. It’s a nice return to tradition. It was also very cool to see Arshavin and one of the other Zenit players carry their children through the medal presentation.
The Zenit players were congratulated in the dressing room afterwards by former Russian prime minister Viktor Zubkov, while Advocaat was phoned by current Russian prime minister Vladimir Putin. After the match, Advocaat admitted he now faces a struggle to hang on to star players such as man of the match Andrei Arshavin. He had already lost Martin Skrtel to Liverpool in the January transfer window. Many clubs will be looking at Arshavin and others from Zenit over the summer. Hopefully, the lure of Champions League football and potential further investment from Russian gas giant Gazprom might be enough to keep the core of his team together. It’s good to see the Russian football league progressing to the point where it might be consider on par with the Bundesliga. It would be nice to see a more distributed balance of power instead of the traditional “Big Three” of Spain, Italy and England.
For Zenit, losing Arshavin to a team from the “Big Three” or even a Bundelsiga club like Schalke 04 or Werder Bremen would be a major blow to their chances in next year’s Champions League though I would never underestimate a side coached by Advocaat. He’s often labelled as a mere “follower of Guus Hiddink” but I think that’s a crass generalization that ignores the facts. He took Holland to the quarter-finals of the 1994 World Cup (where they lost to Brazil) and the semi-finals in Euro 2004 (a narrow loss to Portugal). He’s won silverware at most of the club positions he’s been at and has proven himself a top coach at all levels. Most importanly, his teams always play good one-touch type of football, are attack-minded and entertaining to watch.
I’ve nothing against Rangers and I respect the hard fight they gave to reach the finals but it was nice to see Zenit, the more deserving of the two finalists, win yesterday. The pedigree of the opposition Zenit beat en route to their maiden final is a testament to that claim. Villarreal CF, Olympique de Marseille, Bayer 04 Leverkusen and then FC Bayern München all fell to the Russian side. Zenit played equally well on the road as they did at home and stayed true to their attack-minded football. The final hurdle was to overcome Rangers’ obdurate defending and they cleared it with some style. Congrats Zenit !