It’s a strange thing, an ultimatum. It’s an ever stranger thing when all involved deny that an ultimatum has actually been made. And when the manager of Russia’s most successful club over recent years, fresh from qualifying for the Champions League knockout stages for the first time makes an ultimatum, this strangeness leads to confusion.
According to the Russian press, the story runs like this: the ever successful manager of Zenit St Petersburg, Luciano Spalletti, trots into the Petrovsky one day demanding more money to enhance the squad. Shocked and confused when looking at the success of the current squad, President Aleksandr Dyukov tells the hairless Italian to jump on his Lambretta and scoot, Spalletti then threatens to leave and Dyukov, not wanting to lose his coach, half-heartedly agrees to chuck some more of Gazprom’s money at making Zenit a true European force.
As the infinitely wise boffins at Dictionary.com suggest, an ‘ultimatum’ is defined as ‘a final demand or statement of terms, the rejection of which will result in retaliation or a breakdown in relations.’ Using this definition it appears, therefore, that Spalletti’s ‘final demand’ was granted as there have, as yet, been no ‘breakdown in relations’ in the form of a sacking or resignation and a long Lambretta ride into the Italian sunset. However, Spalletti hasn’t been keen, as a more content manager may be, to tie himself publicly to Zenit in the long-term.
In an interview with the official Zenit website the Italian, asked about the possibility of signing a new, longer and no doubt more lucrative contract, faintly replied, ‘if I’m not fired, then I won’t leave Zenit before my contract ends’. Hardly the sort of ringing endorsement that Zenit’s upper management and fans want to hear, is it?
The reason for Spalletti’s ire is the diverging paths he and the boardroom of the club want to move forward, with the manager wanting the club to spread some roubles around to recruit a new, fresher and youthful spine to the team. It is no secret in Russian media circles that the former Roma boss sees the need for three new players in key areas: a striker to complement Aleksandr Kerzhakov, a central midfielder to usher the ageing pair of Konstantin Zyryanov and Sergei Semak closer to the retirement home and a central defender to account for the current disappointing lack of cover.
But with talk of Spalletti not being appeased by the club’s promises of extra funds and new negotiations, the manager has adopted a more despondent tone in recent interviews, moaning ‘we have reached a ceiling, and we need to change something’. That change by all accounts being a change in the speed in which the boardroom wants to revamp the ageing squad. Despite all this, and most of the media reporting that Spalletti had in fact issued an ultimatum, the board, including President Dyukov and Spalletti are due to meet in Moscow next week to discuss the issues surrounding player acquisition. That fact, however, didn’t help the President to resist his urge to criticise the press, attributing the story to ‘fancy Italian journalists’ who want Spalletti back in his home country and denying that an ultimatum had been made.
Aside from issues on a lack of acquisition, there is one player that deputy editor of Sports.ru Ivan Kalashnikov assures me the Zenit manager is certain he doesn’t want the club to buy. That player is local and national hero and conspicuous Aleksandr Orlov meerkat look-a-like Andrei Arshavin, with Arsenal’s man-child winger definitely not on Spalletti’s christmas shopping list. The Italian is adamant that the Russian has no place in his squad but with the boardroom seeing any possible move as a definite way to please the often raucous horde of Zenit fans we have yet another issue that the two parties are diametrically opposed on.
Whether it is true or not that Spalletti did in fact take inspiration from Don Corleone and make the Zenit board an offer they couldn’t refuse there is no denying that the manager is correct in the fact that the ageing but successful Zenit squad needs a modicum of investment. Next week’s Moscow-based meeting may decide the future of both Luciano Spalletti and Zenit St Petersburg in the short and long term, however, we can’t leave without a nod to the incredibly peevish CSKA director-general Roman Babaev taking a sideways look at Zenit and telling the press ‘of course we have already planned some shopping.’