The former two-time WBA heavyweight boxing champion Nikolai Valuev visited the Zenit St. Petersburg squad prior to their trip to AC Milan on Tuesday.
Built like someone from a comic strip, it was entirely appropriate then that the 7ft giant had his picture taken with striker Hulk, gently reminding the photographer that, considering his size, it would have to be portrait not landscape.
The pair exchanged a few words and although they don’t speak the same language, they appeared to have no problem understanding each other.
What was said from one to another is unclear, but maybe they found some common ground in a bit of fighting talk. That would perhaps in part explain Hulk’s furious reaction to his substitution in the 80th minute of Zenit’s 1-0 win over Milan, which ensured they finished third in their Champions League group and had the consolation of qualifying for the Europa League.
As he made his way toward the dug out at San Siro, Hulk refused to shake coach Luciano Spalletti’s out-stretched hand and when confronted gestured angrily that he’d had enough. Even the near freezing temperatures of Milan weren’t enough to cool him down and it was clear that he was still feeling very hot under the collar when speaking to the media after the game.
“If the situation with the coach does not resolve itself I may leave the club in the January transfer window,” Hulk stropped.
The incident had not gone unnoticed by Zenit’s owners Gazprom. “[Alexey] Miller [the CEO] sent me a text message telling me that he liked the changes I made,” Spalletti told Italian television. “I’m not happy either about having to take a player off and it’s logical that Hulk isn’t jumping for joy but between his displeasure and Miller’s satisfaction, I prefer the latter.”
Backed by the club and keen to assert his authority, Spalletti later added: “Hulk is mistaken if he thinks he should play for 90 minutes. He said he wants to leave? Then, it’s his choice and I can do nothing about it. As for myself, I’m not going anywhere.”
Is anyone else beginning get the impression that Hulk’s transfer might not work out as planned? Spalletti and Zenit didn’t bargain for the trouble it would cause. Bargain is probably the wrong word too considering they spent a combined £64m on Hulk and Axel Witsel in one astonishing day in early September.
Initially, it looked like Spalletti had got what he wanted. After encountering some reluctance at board level in the summer to heed his advice and reinforce heavily in order to take the team up a level particularly in the Champions League, he saw the club shatter the Russian transfer record. It would also break the Zenit dressing room.
Some players got a bit precious and protective over their places in the team and felt threatened by the new signings, reminding them subtly that they’d have to earn their respect in competition. Hulk and Witsel’s debut, an embarrassing 2-0 defeat to Terek Grozny, followed by a shock 3-0 collapse to Malaga in the Champions League didn’t help make new friends or influence people.
Others were jealous and envious at the attention and, above all, the pay they were receiving. Hulk got his first goal for Zenit in a draw away to Krylya Sovetov, but the match made headlines for other reasons. Igor Denisov, the Zenit midfielder and captain of Fabio Capello’s Russia, had been dropped by Spalletti and told to train with the youth team after refusing to play unless his contract was re-negotiated.
He was joined by striker Aleksandr Kerzhakov after he expressed solidarity with his teammate in asking for a pay-rise in line with the wages Zenit had agreed with Witsel and Hulk, both of whom just happen to play in their positions.
“I’d understand it if Messi or Iniesta had come here,” Denisov said. “They probably deserve that kind of sum. But Hulk? We’ve bought good players who will certainly help Zenit. But are they really that much stronger than the current players to get a three-times better salary?”
Coming at a time when Zenit had won just one of their last five games and were four points behind CSKA Moscow, this was arguably the biggest crisis Spalletti had faced since joining the club in 2009.
Things did for a time get a little better following an unlucky 3-2 defeat at home to Milan in the Champions League, as Zenit won their next seven games in a row. Scrutiny, however, returned after a gutless 1-0 defeat away to Anderlecht in November, who’d they beaten only a couple of weeks earlier.
To make matters worse their match with Dinamo Moscow was abandoned and their opponents awarded the win after a firecracker, one of many allegedly smuggled in by female Zenit supporters, was thrown at the feet of goalkeeper Anton Shunin and exploded leaving him clutching his eyes.
Four days later Zenit were two-nil down at home to Malaga after some calamitous defending, and although they fought back to draw it wasn’t enough to secure qualification for the knock-out stages of the Champions League. They were out of a competition that many had considered them dark horses to win after the investment they’d made in the autumn. To say it’s been a rocky season would be an understatement.
On Sunday, Zenit take on Anzhi, the joint Russian Premier League leaders with CSKA Moscow. Unfortunately, it’ll be played behind closed doors as Zenit serve the last of a two-match ban following the Dinamo incident. Adrift by three points, a win for Spalletti’s side would rein in at least one of them. If he could rein in Hulk too and the rest of his dissenting dressing room then maybe a third straight Russian Premier League title wouldn’t be out of the question.