Last weekend Zenit Saint Petersburg’s season of fluctuating fortunes and Jekyll-and-Hyde performances imploded as a disappointing 1-1 draw against Lokomotiv Moscow extinguished any faint hopes of winning the Russian league or securing a Champions League spot.
“It’s been a strange old season,” Nicolas Lombaerts tells The Set Pieces. That is an understatement, with Zenit now set to enter a transitional phase as coach André Villas-Boas departs. At the time of his appointment, the Portuguese had envisioned building a dynasty at Zenit, becoming a successor to Peter the Great, the city’s founder. But at best his tenure is largely viewed with apathy – he has been neither a success nor a failure.
Last season Zenit won the domestic title, but it has been a different picture this campaign. An irascible Villas-Boas has repeatedly lambasted the introduction of the 6+5 rule by the Russian Football Union and, apart from Hulk’s much-improved performances, his team have regressed. In the Champions League Zenit suffered a surprise second-round elimination at the hands of Benfica. In short, Villas-Boas has struggled to build on the work of his predecessor Luciano Spalletti.
“We made too many mistakes against small teams,” Axel Witsel tells The Set Pieces. “At home Zenit lost a lot of points in a stupid manner in November and December. That period made the difference, the roots of losing the title lie there.”
“They [the smaller opposition] were playing with ten men behind the ball, they played on the counter attack and we conceded a lot of goals that way,” adds Lombaerts. “It was hard for us to find a proper solution to score more goals. Zenit has the best squad, but that didn’t help us against Mordovia and Amkar [Perm] at home.”
“In the Champions League we played well,” says Witsel. “But, yes, after the Benfica elimination, everyone was really upset because we could have won and progressed.”
The Belgian duo face a peculiar predicament at Zenit. Witsel, a vital cog in midfield, scores a handful of goals every season and contributes a number of assists, but his hefty price tag – Zenit acquired him for €40m from Benfica – binds him to the club to the point that moves to both Real Madrid and Juventus were thwarted in the past. Witsel’s contract is due to expire in 2017, fuelling speculation that the 27-year-old might be Premier-League bound. He is on Pep Guardiola’s wish list at Manchester City, according to reports, while Tottenham are also considered long-term admirers.
Lombaerts has been a mainstay at Zenit ever since he arrived in 2007. Despite the club spending big on Bruno Alves, Fernando Meira, Michael Lumb and Luis Neto – all central defenders – he has always remained first-choice, even under a seemingly reluctant Villas-Boas. Spalletti moulded the 31-year-old into a complete defender; cool under pressure, clever in possession. Last summer Lombaerts briefly looked Sunderland-bound, but his transfer to the Black Cats collapsed inexplicably. And now he must choose again: remain loyal to Zenit and continue carving out his legacy, or leave in search of a move to a top European league.
Euro 2016 will represent a brief interlude for the Belgian pair from their nagging club concerns. Belgium have been drawn with Italy, Ireland and Sweden in Group E and kick off against the Italians on June 13th in Lyon. “It’s a tough group,” says Witsel. “We don’t have an easy start, considering that our first game is against Italy – a top match and we will need to be ready immediately. That is good in a sense.”
“If we lose [against Italy], we will be under a lot of pressure against Ireland and in the third game,” adds Lombaerts. “It’s really tricky.”
In November, Belgium defeated Italy 3-1 in a friendly in Brussels. Both Witsel and Lombaerts, normally an understudy to Vincent Kompany for the national team, struggled to find their rhythm in a tough encounter, before second-half goals from Kevin De Bruyne and Michy Batshuayi ensured a positive result.
Antonio Conte keenly stressed that Belgium were favourites ahead of the game. He will no doubt do the same in June, a consequence of Marco Verratti’s costly absence and this dazzlingly talented Belgian generation. Post-Euro 2000, then Belgian technical director Michel Sablon remodelled the country’s approach to football, focusing on a 4-3-3 formation alongside player development.
“We tried 4-4-2, but that didn’t work so well,” says Witsel. “It’s been a long time since we began playing 4-3-3. The main reason Belgium have so many talented players is due to the fact there was a belief in young players, to play them in the first team. We grew up together and got a lot out of it – De Bruyne, Fellaini…I was 17 at Standard Liege. It has really worked out nicely.”
In spite of the wealth of talent, an unease about Belgium’s end product simmers: in their 2014 World Cup quarter-final against Argentina, Belgium bossed possession but rarely threatened in the final third. In the Euro 2016 qualifiers the Red Devils often struggled against opponents who sat deep and invited pressure. The European Championship is a defining moment for Belgium’s golden generation – anything less than the semi-finals will be perceived as failure.
“Everyone is talking about the golden generation, but, so far, we haven’t won anything,” cautions Witsel.
“In Brazil we did well and now we have more experience,” says Lombaerts. “I’m one of the oldest but there are a lot of younger players, who now play in the big leagues in England, Germany, France and Spain. That experience is definitely in our favour. Let’s hope we can show it. We should be fine for another six to eight years to perform at the highest level in the biggest tournaments. At the Russia World Cup all the key players will peak at their best age.”
“In Belgium expectations are sky-high,” Lombaerts continues. “Fans want us to win, but I lower my expectations a little bit. It all depends. If we end up first in our group, we may play Germany in the quarter-finals. We have a chance to beat the Germans but, at the same time, you have to be realistic and there is a big chance you are eliminated because it’s still Germany. But I’d be happy to play a lot. That’s my personal goal, as well as reaching the semi-finals.”
Witsel is a guaranteed starter at number six, while Lombaerts may finally get more playing time in France after Kompany tore his thigh muscle in Manchester City’s Champions League semi-final against Real Madrid. It signalled the end of a troubling injury-torn season for the Belgian captain, who will now miss the Euros.
Belgian coach Marc Wilmots will need to reshuffle his defence, but insisted during his squad announcement that Jan Vertonghen and Toby Alderweireld, Tottenham’s central pairing, will continue to play in the full-back positions. Coincidentally, Wilmots considers Galatasaray’s young centre-back Jason Denayer, who has spent the season on loan from Manchester City, as the perfect replacement for Kompany.
“He’s our captain and of course it will affect our back line,” says Lombaerts. “Vermaelen and I are both left-footed players. That’s okay but not that many coaches will field two left-footed players. You have to remember that our full-backs are in fact central defenders as well. So people are still guessing who will play.”
Lombaerts is still recovering from a strained muscle injury himself, but Vermaelen lacks match fitness after a bad run of luck at Barcelona. More injuries would be catastrophic for Belgium, leaving their defence exposed against Italy. Euro 2016 is a tournament that offers a realm of possibilities for Lombaerts, Witsel and their teammates but, at the same time, as they discovered at the 2014 World Cup, it will be unforgiving.