Key Dates in Zenit’s title win

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We have picked out four key dates that played a major part in Zenit St. Petersburg’s RPL title.

17 October - Zenit 3-1 Sochi (Wendel debut, and Daler Kuzyaev returns)

After the October international break finished, it was back to business for Zenit - as well for some new and old faces. Brazilian midfielder Wendel had signed from Sporting Club to bolster a midfield that had been shorn of Daler Kuzyaev’s services since the start of the season, and both made their first appearances of the campaign.

Zenit had raced into a 2-0 lead inside half an hour against Sochi, who had briefly gone top of the table three matchdays earlier, and were still strongly pushing for the top four after having lost just once. Vyacheslav Karavaev and Aleksandr Erokhin were the goalscorers, with the latter coming off to give Brazilian new boy Wendel his debut.

A few minutes earlier, Sochi had hit back as Kirill Zaika was set up by former Zenit midfielder Artur Yusupov before the hour mark. Half an eye might have been on the upcoming Champions League campaign for Zenit, but they held their nerve until added time when Douglas Santos was assisted by Aleksey Sutormin.

Kuzyaev played the whole 90 minutes, and would go on to be nominated for the November Player of the Month award before later picking up the Zenit equivalent for March. At the start of the international break he had signed a new contract as well, suddenly giving the side two more first-team options in midfield alongside Wendel.

28 November Arsenal 0-0 Zenit (Aleksey Sutormin first game at right back, injury crisis, Chistyakov first start)

Europe didn’t provide such a fruitful season as the Russian Premier League, as Zenit suffered a number of near misses in the Champions League, losing twice at home by a single goal and agonisingly being denied all three points against Lazio by a late equaliser. Juggling a continental campaign alongside domestic duties proved tricky at times, none more so than through October and November.

From the Sochi 3-1 win on 17 October to the start of December, Zenit only won two of 10 fixtures in all competitions, giving their RPL title rivals a sniff. CSKA Moscow had won eight out of their last 10 league matches and were sitting ahead of Zenit in the table, so it was critical Sergey Semak’s men didn’t drop more ground before the December run-in to the winter break.

The problem was both of his first-choice senior centre-backs, Dejan Lovren and Yaroslav Rakitsky, were unavailable; Lovren through injury, and Rakitsky through suspension. This would turn out to be the only match that both would be out of action all season. In fact, the entire back four were out as Vyacheslav Karavaev and Douglas Santos were also injured, while midfielders Magomed Ozdoev and Wendel were sidelined as well.

As a result, the inexperienced partnership of youth team product Danila Prohkin and Dmitry Chistyakov, a loan signing from FC Rostov, were selected in central defence, with veteran Yury Zhirkov at left back and an experimental move to put winger Aleksey Sutormin on the other flank of defence. Sutormin’s experimental move would later prove to be inspired, as he would set up two goals a fortnight later against Dynamo Moscow.

Normally a goalless draw away to a side battling relegation wouldn’t warrant headlines, but under the extreme circumstances a point was critical - not only did it return Zenit to the top of the table following CSKA’s defeat away to Rubin Kazan, but it also showed the resilience of the squad’s depth.

5 December Zenit 5-1 Ural (Lunev back from injury, statement win after two consecutive draws)

A week later, another key member of the squad returned from injury - goalkeeper Andrey Lunev. Shoulder and hip problems had plagued him the season before, but now he was back between the sticks. Although Zenit were back on top of the table, margins were very thin and the slightest slip-up would hand the initiative back to the chasing pack. 

Ural Ekaterinburg were the visitors to the Gazprom Arena after Zenit had picked up two draws in a row, both away from home. With only two more matches before the RPL broke up until spring, it was essential to kickstart the momentum.

The response was emphatic. A 5-1 thrashing was dealt out to the easternmost side in the top flight, and sent a message to the rest of the league - we’re back. Spartak had hammered Tambov at home earlier that day, also by the same scoreline. Strike duo Sardar Azmoun and Artem Dzyuba were rampant having a hand in all five goals, scoring four between them while Azmoun set up the other for Douglas Santos.

The morale-boosting 5-1 win restored some confidence that spurred Zenit on to face Moscow rivals Dynamo the following week, with Azmoun and Dzyuba again responsible for the goals as the latter bagged a double. The following week saw the arrival in St. Petersburg of Spartak in what would turn out to be a critical result in the title race; the Red-Whites arrived in second place, but another 3-1 win - with yet another goal apiece for Dzyuba and Azmoun - sent them back to Moscow further off the pace.

17 March CSKA 2-3 Zenit (dominant performance, Wendel first goals)

The only side to spend longer than one whole matchday at the top of the table apart from the eventual champions themselves were CSKA. Their stunning form up until the end of November had been a major thorn in Zenit’s side, so the journey to the capital in mid-March was of very clear significance, even if the Armymen had by now suffered a slump in which they’d won just twice in the previous eight matches.

Former Zenit striker Salomon Rondon had given CSKA the lead just before the half-hour mark, but the advantage didn’t last long. Five minutes later Artem Dzyuba hit back for the visitors to take parity into the break. Five minutes into the second half, Wendel was rewarded for his dominant display with his first goal for the club - and it was a stunner. Dzyuba flicked on a long throw-in from Douglas Santos, leaving Wendel to pause momentarily before lashing a fierce rocket into the top corner.

Ilzat Akhmetov was then shown a red card, and Zenit’s control turned up a notch. They had to wait until the last quarter of an hour before Daler Kuzyaev’s run saw him feed Wendel under pressure from Hordur Magnusson. Wonderfully quick feet saw the Brazilian evade a desperate sliding challenge and give Zenit the breathing space their dominance deserved.

2 May - Zenit 6-1 Lokomotiv (the RPL title is confirmed)

It wasn't just the match that sealed a third consecutive title. It was just that they'd beaten their nearest rivals. It was the utter comprehensive confidence with which they tore through the most in-form side in the RPL with the championship on the line. 

The paths of Zenit and Lokomotiv to the ultimate showdown could barely have been more different. Zenit had spent all but six of the 17 preceding matchday at the top of the table, only once dropping out of the top two after matchday 12, whereas Lokomotiv had spent the majority of the campaign outside the top four. In fact, at the halfway stage they were rooted in mid-table obscurity, and had even dipped into the bottom half at one point.

However, the scintillating form that Marko Nikolic had engineered for his side since the winter break was almost unprecedented. They had been rampant, winning every single competitive match since the season’s resumption including eight straight RPL wins and reaching the Russian Cup Final, shooting up to second place past city rivals Dynamo, Spartak and CSKA. Zenit had been knocked out of the Cup by Arsenal Tula in a shock home defeat, and had dropped points in league games against Rostov, Rubin and Krasnodar.

The usual suspects were heavily involved. Top goalscorers Sardar Azmoun and Artem Dzyuba had a direct hand in all six goals, scoring five and assisting the last. The tone was set by a sumptuous chip from Dzyuba after a scrappy penalty area mess, and the slim advantage remained for the majority of the first half. 

Azmoun leapt highest to glance a fine header home five minutes before the break before converting a penalty on the stroke of half time. His hattrick was completed within seconds of the restart before Dzyuba tapped home a rebound for the fifth.

Lokomotiv were reeling, a mere shadow of the side who has steamroller their way to 11 competitive wins, but they did snatch a consolation when Francois Kamano caught Yaroslav Rakitsky out from a short goal kick and slotted home, but Malcom pulled out a goal of even greater beauty chipping Guilherme from distance. 

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