Zenit St. Petersburg chase their first European silverware when the free-scoring Russian champions take on Rangers in the UEFA Cup final at the City of Manchester Stadium today. Zenit, bidding to become the second Russian side in four seasons to lift the trophy after CSKA Moscow's success in 2005, have produced some memorable performances en route to their first European final. The Russians overcame Villarreal and Olympique Marseille in the early knockout rounds before making the rest of Europe sit up with a 4-1 quarterfinal, first-leg demolition of Bayer Leverkusen in Germany.
Then, in the semis, Zenit held Bayern Munich at home before stunning the four-time European champions with a 4-0 rout in the return to qualify for the final in style. Zenit coach Dick Advocaat said the UEFA Cup final was the most important game of the season for his club, who have made an indifferent start to the defense of their Russian title.
“That's what I told my players,” the Dutchman told reporters.
“After we beat Bayern I told them if you play like you did against the Germans you have a good chance of winning the trophy. “
Zenit will be without Russia striker Pavel Pogrebnyak, the competition's joint top-scorer with 10 goals, who is suspended but welcome back influential playmaker Andrei Arshavin who missed the second leg of the semifinal. Turkish midfielder Gökdeniz Karadeniz, formerly of Trabzonspor, is also likely to make the starting line-up.
“I don't like to talk about individual players, especially those who will be missing,” said Advocaat.
The final pits Dutchman Advocaat against the club he managed for three and a half years between 1998 and 2002, winning two league titles with the Glasgow side. Rangers are bidding for the quadruple of UEFA Cup and three domestic trophies in a remarkable season that has already yielded one piece of silverware in the shape of the Scottish League Cup.
But their quest for success on four fronts has caused a fixture pile-up which is fully testing the depth of Walter Smith's squad. Rangers have the Scottish title destiny in their own hands -- they trail arch rivals Celtic by four points but will be crowned champions if they win their remaining three games, and their season will end with a Scottish Cup final appearance against Queen of the South on May 24.The foundations for their fine UEFA Cup run have been laid on a rock-solid defense that has conceded just two goals in eight matches since they parachuted into the competition after finishing third in their Champions League group.
Rangers have knocked out Panathinaikos, Werder Bremen, Sporting and Fiorentina, in a penalty shootout, to reach the final, their first European showpiece since they lifted the UEFA Cup Winners' Cup in 1972.