On a high from the Winter Olympics success, Russia’s sporting attention will now turn to Zenit St Petersburg’s Last 16 Champions League clash with Borussia Dortmund.
Zenit currently have a narrow lead in Russia’s Premier League over Moscow’s Lokomotiv and Spartak. Tonight’s match against Dortmund will be their first competitive match in two and a half months, following Russia’s long winter break. Poor performances at home and in Europe in their last few matches marred what had been a very promising start to their season. Watching their performance on a cold night in Tomsk, over 2400 miles away in Western Siberia, I saw a talented side, as well as a demonstration of the huge gulf in class in Russia’s top division. Zenit’s return to competitive action will certainly be their sternest test in a while.
But will it be as stern as one might think? Dortmund graced last season’s Champions League with fans, characters and a style of football that won over many. But this year, a staggering twenty points behind Bayern Munich in the Bundesliga and tussling with a few teams for Champions League qualification, they are not as dangerous as last year. Pipping Arsenal to the top spot in their group shows they can comfortably compete with Europe’s elite, but a 3-0 humbling against Hamburg on the weekend would suggest that they don’t pose the same threat. Of course, Dortmund have players that can tear teams apart, Lewandowski and Reus among those that Zenit will need to contain, but their safe passage to the Last 16 is far from determined.
I believe Dortmund will come through this tie, but Zenit are developing, acquiring stronger players each year. They shouldn’t be underestimated. Dortmund are out to burst Russia’s sporting bubble.