Zenit aim to rekindle spirit of 2008 as Dortmund lie in wait
It's six years since Zenit St Petersburg defeated Bayern Munich 4-0 to reach their first ever European final. Now Champions League history is in their sights as they prepare to face German opposition once more.
Much has changed since Zenit lifted the UEFA Cup in 2008, thanks to victory over Rangers in the final at the formerly named City of Manchester Stadium.
If Zenit met Bayern now, it is hard to imagine the Russians being able to roll them over in quite the same fashion as they did on that April evening. Then, Pavel Pogrebnyak - now with Reading - scored twice to bring a sad end to Ottmar Hitzfeld's glittering career in European club competitions.
This time Zenit’s opponents in early 2014 are Borussia Dortmund, as they aim to progress beyond the last 16 of the Champions League for the first time in their history. They reached the same stage two years ago, only to be edged out by Benfica.
Dortmund will be heavy favourites to progress, but they would not be the first to find St Petersburg in the spring a more uncomfortable prospect than they might have imagined.
The first reminder of that came only minutes after this writer stepped off the plane at Pulkovo Airport recently. On the bus to the city, a sticker attached to a guard rail demanded: 'Don't Buy The Sun'.
It was probably a message lost on most. The Sun isn't exactly readily available in St Petersburg in any case, but this was a sticker left behind by Liverpool supporters who had travelled to the city for a Europa League last 32 clash at the start of 2013. Another sticker called for justice over Hillsborough.
Liverpool lost 2-0 to Zenit in February, through goals from Hulk and the now-retired Sergei Semak.
Hulk's early goal in the second leg at Anfield meant that even Luis Suarez's heroics couldn't repair a three-goal deficit. Brendan Rodgers' side went out on away goals.
Even now, it's Hulk who remains Zenit's greatest hope for Champions League progression.
Former talisman Andrey Arshavin - man of the match in that 2008 final - is back for a third spell, but the 32-year-old is a faded force. The year of 2008 was his annus mirabilis, when he inspired Zenit to UEFA Cup glory and then dissected the Dutch in a European Championship quarter-final victory in perhaps his finest hour.
He had bright moments early in his Arsenal career, sure, most notably that four-goal haul at Liverpool, but his time at the Emirates produced ever-diminishing returns. Often played in a wide position rather than the No.10 role in which he had shone for Zenit and Russia, his confidence dwindled.
In Zenit's 1-1 home draw against Atletico Madrid in this season's group stage, he came on as a substitute but looked a pale shadow of the player he once was. Once so precise with every touch, the Russian is now more likely stumble over the ball and lose possession than he is to produce moments of brilliance.
Arshavin's former strike partner Aleksandr Kerzhakov, who also had a spell abroad with Sevilla, is starting to show similar signs of age as his pace gradually begins to desert him. At one point Zenit fans openly burst out laughing when the striker fell over chasing a channel ball.
Zenit paid €40m to sign Hulk from Porto just over a year ago, and it is the Brazilian to whom they turn when they need inspiration now. Against Atletico, it was all too often.
The Spaniards, operating without a natural striker, looked content for the most part to soak up pressure and return home with a draw. Struggling to break their opponents down, Zenit's answer was to give the ball to their dangerman as often as possible and hope he could come up with something. But try as he did, more often than not, he couldn't.
On his day he is capable of brilliance that would put him alongside any player in the world, but those moments are sporadic and unpredictable.
Zenit will surely need at least one of them if they are to defeat Dortmund. That said, as much as the Westfalenstadion and prospect of confronting the Yellow Wall won't be a cakewalk for Zenit, Dortmund will not find the Petrovsky Stadium easy either.
The first leg on February 25 will come before the restart of the Russian league, and the pitch has been known to be troublesome at that time of year. The roofless stadium - on its own tiny island by the Neva River, a short metro ride from the central Nevsky Prospect - is something of a throwback.
Sadly it will be lost when Zenit move to their new stadium some time before the 2018 World Cup. They were due to move into the 69,000-capacity arena five years ago, but construction has been delayed and delayed still more.
Against Atletico the stadium announcer seemed keen to prove himself as the most enthusiastic in Europe, becoming increasingly crazed as kick-off approached. Perhaps it was all he could do to keep himself warm in the Russian winter as temperatures plunged below zero.
The atmosphere created by the home fans was vibrant and impressive, even though at times it bore little connection to events on the field. The first minutes of the match were dedicated to singing the club song, while the players went about their business as something of a sideshow.
It was the same in Moscow a day later, when CSKA Moscow hosted Bayern Munich at the Khimki Arena in the capital's far-flung suburbs.
It was minus five degrees by the 9pm kick-off, yet still a significant number of CSKA's most ardent supporters spent the final 20 minutes with their shirts off. Needing all the layers I could get as the game went on and the temperature plummeted further, I wasn't too tempted to join them.
Perhaps surprisingly, given that CSKA were facing the European champions and one stand was shut because of the racist abuse aimed at Yaya Toure weeks earlier, neither that game nor the Zenit fixture were sold out. Less surprising, though, was that their Champions League journey ended in the group stage.
For Zenit it goes on, even though they amassed only six points in six games - half of the total accumulated by Napoli, who were eliminated in Dortmund's group.
Few would back against Dortmund progressing to the quarter-finals - but then again, not many saw Zenit 4-0 Bayern coming either.