Lokomotiv, CSKA and Zenit lead Russia's challenge in Europa League
Russian clubs are usually expected to experience difficulties in Europe in February after the long winter break, but this season the script has been totally different. All four representatives won their respective fixtures in the return leg of the Europa League round of 32.
For Spartak Moscow, beating Athletic Bilbao 2-1 away wasn't enough, as they lost 3-1 in the first leg and went out 4-3 on aggregate, but Lokomotiv Moscow, CSKA Moscow and Zenit St Petersburg all advanced.
The last Russian triumph on international stage was in 2008, when Zenit, managed by Dick Advocaat, beat Rangers 2-0 in the UEFA Cup final. Igor Denisov was one of the heroes in Manchester that night, scoring the opener on 72 minutes.
Denisov, now 33, is still going strong for unlikely Premier League leaders Lokomotiv Moscow. He even scored a rare goal, helping coach Yuri Semin's side to beat Nice 1-0 in the return leg two weeks ago. The game in Moscow took place in extremely cold conditions on a frozen pitch, and Lokomotiv rode their luck as well, as Mario Balotelli hit the woodwork twice in the first half. Loko might be fortunate, but they are talented, determined and play as a unit, which makes them very hard to beat.
Atletico Madrid are likely to experience that when they face them on Thursday, and the 70-year-old Semin is excited to take on Diego Simeone, whom he described as "a great footballer and a great coach." Simeone was just 15 when Semin took charge at Lokomotiv for the first time in 1986, and it could turn into a remarkable duel.
While Semin is enjoying a phenomenal season, the same can't be said of Roberto Mancini, who is going from one crisis to another at Zenit. The Italian signed five Argentine players in the summer and changed the squad completely after replacing Mircea Lucescu, but has been unable to create a functioning attacking unit. Zenit were lucky to get points at the beginning of the season, then totally ran out of steam, and will struggle to finish in the top three.
Zenit finished 2017 with a goalless draw at Akhmat Grozny and started 2018 with a goalless draw against Amkar Perm, but remarkably did a very good job in Europe nevertheless. They scored at will in the group stage against Real Sociedad, Rosenborg and Vardar, and then overcame Celtic two weeks ago with an emphatic 3-0 win at home after the 1-0 defeat in Glasgow.
Meeting Mancini might have been a nostalgic affair for Brendan Rodgers, who made his Premier League debut as Swansea manager against Manchester City in August 2011. The Italian won the title with City that season, but his career has gone downhill ever since, and the Zenit adventure could yet turn into a major disaster. Arguably, the Europa League is his best chance to save his season, even though Zenit's fragile defence will be tested by counter-attack specialists RB Leipzig this week.
While Zenit invested tens of millions in new stars like Leandro Paredes and Sebastian Driussi, CSKA Moscow haven't made a major signing for a very long time now. Owner Yevgeni Giner simply doesn't have funds to purchase new players, and it is quite remarkable that the team keeps challenging at the top each season nevertheless.
Bringing back former players on loan is CSKA's specialty, and in January they captured Ahmed Musa, who escaped his nightmare at Leicester City. Musa duly made his debut in the games against Red Star Belgrade, decided by a single Alan Dzagoev goal in Moscow, and he should be extremely important when Viktor Goncharenko's side face Lyon.
CSKA were the first Russian team to lift a European trophy, winning the UEFA Cup in 2005, and the stars from that squad are still at the club -- Igor Akinfeev, Sergei Ignashevich and the Berezutsky twins, Vasili and Aleksei. They know that reaching such heights again would be unlikely, but Russian clubs see success in Europe as important, especially ahead of hosting the World Cup. In fact, the smaller budgets can actually help not hurt the Russian teams in Europe.
"Without stars like Hulk, Samuel Eto'o and Mathieu Valbuena, clubs pay more attention to building balanced squads. Local players are getting more opportunities. Teams are managed by coaches and not agents. Football is healthier in Russia at the moment," Sport Express journalist Filipp Papenkov told ESPN FC.
Lokomotiv, CSKA and Zenit might be underdogs in their respective round-of-16 fixtures, but you definitely shouldn't write them off.
Michael Yokhin is an experienced international football journalist who writes for ESPN, Blizzard, Guardian and FourFourTwo. Follow him on Twitter @yokhin.