- Associated Press - Monday, August 7, 2017

ST. PETERSBURG, Russia (AP) - He’s no longer at Manchester City, but sky blue and Roberto Mancini seem a winning combination.

After just four games of the new Russian football season, Mancini’s Zenit St. Petersburg is already considered the title favorite.

A 5-1 beating of defending Russian champion Spartak Moscow on Sunday showed why: An incisive attacking style, well-integrated new signings, and renewed motivation. All of those factors were lacking last season when Zenit missed out on Champions League qualification under Mancini’s predecessor as manager, Mircea Lucescu.

Zenit leads the league, with surprise package Lokomotiv Moscow. Spartak is down in 10th.

Mancini, who led Man City to the English title in 2012, was modest about how he’s managed the fast start in Russia. “There’s no secret,” Mancini said through a translator. “It was a tough game against a serious team and we managed to win by playing well.”

Mancini was appointed in June, attracted to Russia from a second stint at Inter Milan. Zenit failed to reach the Champions League for a second straight season and fired Lucescu after one season in charge.

So far, the greatest surprise of Mancini’s tenure has been the revival of striker Alexander Kokorin.

Once considered a key player for Russia for its home World Cup, he went into a slump last year and became better known for his hard-partying image than his work on the field.

After scoring just five times in 27 league games under Lucescu, Kokorin has three goals from four under Mancini.

It also helps that Zenit returned to its usual big-spending ways after a year of belt-tightening.

Sebastian Driussi, a 21-year-old new arrival from Argentina’s River Plate, delivered a defense-splitting pass for Kokorin’s opening goal against Spartak, then set up another for fellow newcomer Daler Kuzyaev.

Two more new Argentines will also be key to a title bid: Former Roma midfielder Leandro Paredes and ex-Lyon defender Emanuel Mammana.

Even if everything is going well for Zenit on the pitch, its home stadium is causing some stress.

The new $700 million arena has a roof, but that wasn’t closed for the Spartak game, causing warmups to be interrupted by a freak hailstorm. There were then water leaks through the roof. Also, there were clashes between police and visiting Spartak fans.

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