On road to hat-trick: how Zenit-Kazan starts in Champions League play-off

On road to hat-trick: how Zenit-Kazan starts in Champions League play-off Photo: Roman Kruchinin (zenit-kazan.com)

Zenit-Kazan played its first match of the volleyball Champions League play-off against Belgian Knack on 15 March. It was clear before the match that the Kazan players were undoubted favourites, and their victory 3-0 only proved these estimations. Realnoe Vremya tells how the game was and Zenit's further perspectives.

Second champion of Belgium vs Zenit

The Belgian club has been a champion four times in a row. Knack accumulated about ten titles of the best club of Belgium in total. Noliko still remains the leader in this indicator – 14 victories. By the way, these two clubs did not give the title to other teams since 1995! Here there is no competition, though the Russian Championship is more predictable, but it is another story.

In this Champions League, Knack became a danger for Turkish Halkbank having won it twice at the group stage. The Belgians also won the winner of the group Perugia, which, by the way, will host Champions League Final Four, and finished third. Thanks to mainly this victory against the Italians, Knack went ahead and, honestly, the ten-time champion of Belgium has few chances against Zenit.

The four-time gold medallists from Europe's elite club competition was the team which was at the bottom of my wish list. They play volleyball from another planet. They are the main candidate to claim a fifth gold medal in the Champions League. Thinking of moving on to the Playoffs 6 against them is completely unrealistic and even ridiculous. However, we will welcome them with a lot of respect. And we rather die against a giant than against a toddler,'' Knack head coach Emile Rousseaux told after the Playoffs 12 draw.

The ten-time champion of Belgium has few chances against Zenit

On road to the third consecutive Champions League

As usual, Zenit quite confidently went through the group stage and did not face any special opposition from Turkish Arkas, German Friedrichshafen and French Paris Volley. The Kazan players lost only one set in Germany, the other matches ended 3-0. Zenit also continued a series of 29 victories in all tournaments of which 22 ended with three sets. Last time Zenit lost was almost 5 months ago – on 23 October 2016 in the final of the Club World Championship, Brazilian Sada Cruzeiro did not give the Kazan players any chance to win the tournament.

''Speaking about this year, the Brazilians showed an incredible level. Speaking about that game against them, no national team would win them. The rival did his best. And the Brazilians are an emotional team as nobody else. And support gives them another 20-30% of their possibilities. We had chances to impose a fight. Unfortunately, we don't manage to show our volleyball in the Club World Championship year after year. It is difficult to say what the reasons are. Maybe the lack of games at the beginning of the season. It might sound like an excuse. In fact, the Brazilians were perhaps stronger. I will say it the following way – we did not lose but the Brazilians won,'' told Zenit opposite Maksim Mikhailov in an interview to Realnoe Vremya.

In addition, the Kazan super club has another problem – the national championship. Even if Dynamo-Moscow and Belogorie are strong, anyway, Zenit is the strongest team in Russia. The Kazan players suffered the last defeat in the domestic championships on 22 November 2015 when Vladimir Alekno's players lost Gazprom-Yugra 2-3 at home.

Despite the pre-match coefficients, the match started evenly

Problems are not an obstacle for Zenit

Zenit usually respects any rival as different as they are. Even when bookmakers bet 1,03 on the Kazan players' victory, anyway, Alekno brought his strongest squad. Here the strongest players headed by the three León, Anderson and Mikhailov played from the beginning. Despite the pre-match coefficients, the match started evenly – Knack gave to understand that it won't be easy to win. And the Kazan players could not take the lead for a long time, though their attacks were intelligent and powerful. There were problems in block that lost not the strongest attacks of the host team or threw the ball to the court. Thank God, so to speak, Zenit's serve and attack were amazing. In this match, Knack could attack fast, which was a problem for Zenit. It all guaranteed a close end of the first set. Alekno even had to take timeout to remind the players how they needed to play. It helped to a certain degree – Mikhailov's powerful shot won the first set for Zenit – 25-23. It became clear it would not be easy.

In the next set, the Kazan players held the lead from the beginning. It seems that Alekno gave clips on the break between the sets that were enough till the first break after which Knack reduced the margin and created an intrigue. However, Zenit did not allow to get closer, though problems of the first set continued. The Kazan players won thanks to their class: if it were a team like Gazprom-Yugra, it would have lost. However, Zenit played the end more confident – powerful shots that Knack's block and reception could not cope with began. As a result, a far more confident victory 25-19.

The third set as well as the first one started with a persistent battle. The Belgians did not give the Russian super club a minute to have a rest. Once it seemed that Knack even levelled the score. But thanks to mainly León, Zenit started to widen the margin. This Cuban Polish man is a genius – he is compared with Leo Messi for a reason. Even if the Kazan players played well in attack, their defence continued to be bad. On one of the breaks, Alekno lost his temper and swore, which was shot by Belgian cameras. But this purely Russian motivation helps, and Zenit won with problems in block. The third set ended 25-18 and Mikhailov's ace. The victory was confident according to the score but not the game at times.

And now the Kazan players are going home to end the Superleague and play the second Playoffs 12 match

Zenit is Champions League favourite

Before the beginning of this season, Zenit was considered if not the hot favourite but certainly one of the candidates to the victory in the competition. Zenit already has four wins in the Champions League under its belt. Two of them were in the last two seasons.

Of course, Barcelona from Kazan has strong rivals that can sweep Zenit from the European throne. First of all, it is Italian Perugia, which will host Final Four as a host team. Italian clubs are always strong at home. This is why if the Kazan players reach this competition stage, it won't be easy. Modena that can create difficulties is another club from Italy. Like Perugia, the team won in the Champions League group having lost in the last game against Slovenian ACH Volley. Resovia, Skra and ZAKSA can also be problematic for Zenit.

But the Kazan club has been playing as a favourite for a long time, which doesn't let it relax. It is always important to play without looking who is playing on the other side of the court. And rivals are ready to play to the max like in the match against Knack. If Zenit had played against, for instance, Perugia, the outcome is unknown. And now the Kazan players are going home to end the Superleague and play the second Playoffs 12 match.

By Aleksandr Lushkin. Photo: Roman Kruchinin (zenit-kazan.com)