x Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 19 January 2018

Sulk over Hulk has eased up at troubled Zenit St Petersburg

The Russian side are expected to win against Anderlecht in the Champions League, despite reports of a schism in the dressing room.

Hulk, left, and Axel Witsel, second left, arrived at Zenit in the summer. Dmitry Lovetsky / AP Photo
Hulk, left, and Axel Witsel, second left, arrived at Zenit in the summer. Dmitry Lovetsky / AP Photo

Givanildo Vieira de Souza, alternatively known as Hulk, the powerful Brazilian striker with gelignite in his left foot, took to the internet last week to defuse the story about the bomb.

He chose to speak to Fifa's own website while on duty with Brazil to challenge the widely reported story that, to mark his arrival at Zenit Saint Petersburg, somebody had left a symbolic message for him at the Russian club's headquarters: a fake explosive device bearing a photograph of the player and words spelling out "No to Hulk!".

Nonsense, reckons the player. Had he received that sort of welcome, he told Fifa.com, he "would have taken his family and left".

But Hulk, for whom Zenit paid Porto around €50 million (Dh225m) at the tail end of the last transfer window, cannot but be aware that his arrival, and that of the €40m Belgian midfielder Axel Witsel from Benfica has not pleased everybody connected with the Russian champions.

Igor Denisov, the club captain during Zenit's two successive triumphs in their domestic league, has been training with the youth squad for most of the last month following his outspoken complaint that the new recruits were being paid, by his estimation, three times more in salary by the generously sponsored club than the highest salaried Russian players.

Despite continuing to play for the Russia national team, the player was never likely to be recalled by the Zenit head coach Luciano Spalletti for tomorrow's meeting with Anderlecht, even if their position in the Champions League - no points from two matches, six goals conceded so far - would seem to recommend some of Denisov's midfield authority. A deep breach has been opened and remains unresolved.

Zenit have picked up some domestic form since they suffered a 3-2 defeat at home to AC Milan in the last round of European games, with wins over Krasnodar and Kuban Krasnow taking them up to fourth in the Russian Premier League. But it has been a testing couple of months for the respected Spalletti.

He was also obliged to confront his leading goalscorer Aleksander Kerzhakov, over his tetchy response to the late summer transfer blitz. Like Denisov, Kerzhakov had made public his discomfort at the sudden changes of hierarchy in the dressing-room. The former Sevilla striker was told by Spalletti that the coach wanted players "who will put the team, not themselves first", but after his ticking off, recovered his place in the first team.

"There is no jealousy in the squad," Witsel last week told De Standaard of Belgium, although he must be mildly bewildered by the intrigues at Zenit. Even Vladimir Putin, the Russian president, made a statement on the unrest.

Putin essentially said that in football's free market, individual institutions can decide where they invest and that fans generally want to see star players. That the issue should be deemed a political one is partly down to the influence of Gazprom, the partly-privatised gas parastatal who sponsor Zenit, and in so doing, enable transfer fees like those that went on Hulk and Witsel.

Gazprom are eager to use sport to promote their brand globally. They have also put money into Uefa, organisers of the Champions League, and were prominent drivers behind the new, 69,000 capacity Zenit stadium, currently under construction and earmarked as a principal site for the 2018 World Cup, which, to Putin's delight, was awarded to Russia last year.

Zenit want to be at the vanguard of Russian football's growing prominence, just as they were when they won the 2008 Uefa Cup.

Until Milan visited and, thanks to an inspired 90 minutes from the goalkeeper Christian Abbiati, won there, the club had been gathering a reputation as one the toughest hosts in European club football.

They had not been beaten in Saint Petersburg, where their current home is the Petrovsky stadium, for 16 matches before then.

For all their recent ructions, they feel confident that facing Anderlecht, normal home service will be resumed.

"I think we are coming out of our crisis," said Spalletti. "I have seen a lot of positives in recent games. The team is back on track."


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