As always, the key to Russian sides’ performance in the knockout stage of European competition is how they react to their winter break. The scheduling of the Russian Premier League has changed for this season, but Zenit St Petersburg haven’t played a competitive game since early December – only a succession of friendlies. Will they benefit from the rest, or lack match sharpness?
Liverpool might naturally want to test Zenit’s fitness by pressing high up and making the game energetic – and with the Petrovsky Stadium likely to be at sub-zero temperatures, few players will want to stand still. But that would be a dangerous game against one of Europe’s finest counter-attacking sides – even in this home leg, Luciano Spalletti’s side will want to play predominantly on the break.
That means Liverpool must be disciplined, organised and patient in this tie. On many occasions this season, Brendan Rodgers has instructed his players to press high up, and Liverpool have dominated the opening stages as a result – but it’s a danger to leave his defence unprotected against a fearsome frontline that attacks at incredible speed. Zenit are used to breaking through the opposition lines quickly and transferring the ball into attack immediately, and Liverpool’s defence has looked extremely nervous in recent weeks, making it dangerous to allow opponents to run at them.
Although the signing of Hulk grabbed the headlines, Zenit’s key player remains Danny, the versatile Portuguese international that usually plays on the left of 4-3-3. He’s usually the man that leads the counter-attacks, dropping deep to receive possession before running directly with the ball, effortlessly gliding past opponents. Through-balls are his speciality, to meet teammates instinctively running beyond the opposition defence, and he loves threading the ball through the opposition backline with extravagant, outside-of-the-foot chips with his right foot. Stopping him is imperative, and it would be a surprise if Rodgers rested Glen Johnson against such a tricky opponent.
Spalletti’s big decision is whether to use Hulk upfront, and play speedy winger Vladimir Bystrov on the right, or to ask Hulk to cut inside from the right, with Aleksandr Kerzhakov playing the centre-forward role. Bystrov has done well this season, but Kerzhakov’s movement to drag defenders out of position is invaluable. Hulk, whose signing angered both players and some supporter groups, has an astonishingly powerful shot, but can be nullified if he’s forced onto his right foot.
In midfield, the key to Zenit’s system is rotation. The purchase of Belgian Axel Witsel, like the signing of Hulk, disturbed the cohesion in the centre of the pitch, but Spalletti uses a fluid trio that can rotate with defensive midfielder Igor Denisov sometimes popping up in advanced positions, and Roman Shirokov becoming a reliable goalscorer. Shirokov is an unusual player – once a deep-lying midfielder (and used at centre-back at the start of his Zenit career – coincidentally, because of Martin Skrtel’s departure to Liverpol), he’s become something of a Frank Lampard figure, timing his runs into the box brilliantly from a left-sided position. The fluidity and understand in this zone means Rodgers is probably better off playing three proper central midfielders, rather than using Luis Suarez in the hole.
Suarez has played upfront, on the left and behind Daniel Sturridge in recent weeks – but in this match, he might be better off on the right flank. Zenit’s main injury absentee is left-back Domenico Criscito, a considerable blow as he overlaps excellently to swing in crosses, and allows Danny to drift inside without compromising Zenit’s width. Tomas Hubočan – a centre-back by trade, but one who can shift to the flanks without too much fuss – is likely to fill in, but Suarez would enjoy testing his pace and mobility in wide zones, from the role where he excelled in his Ajax days.
But this should be a cagey match, with Zenit wanting to play on the counter, and Liverpool unlikely to allow them space to break into. Under 2.5 goals, at around 1.8 on Betfair is good value.
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