What: UEFA Champions League – Group C
Who: Zenit St. Petersburg v AC Milan
When: Wednesday 3rd October, 2012, at 17:00 UK Time
Where: Petrovsky Stadium, St. Petersburg, Russia
Keeping Squad Harmony
Zenit coach Luciano Spalletti is expected to take the Russian Premier League champions through to the Round of 16 at the very least, given the money he has spent in the summer. The Italian splashed out around €80M on the final day of the summer transfer window to buy striker Hulk from FC Porto and midfielder Axel Witsel from Benfica. It was a double raid for Portuguese football’s two biggest stars and has brought with it increased expectations.
Another effect too though has been an unsettling of the squad. When the amount being paid to the pair leaked out recently, Igor Denisov and Aleksandr Kerzhakov protested and were demoted to the club’s reserve ranks. The latter has since apologised and been reinstated, but Hulk and Witsel’s arrival has caused a stir, and not just within the squad either. A fake bomb was sent to Zenit’s training base, with Hulk the target, with the implication that sections of the club’s fans, who have been labelled as racist, are not happy to have signed the striker.
Of course, against all this upheaval, Zenit have a game to win. Spalletti’s side opened their Champions League campaign by losing 3-0 away at Malaga, making this match even more important. The Russian side have not been beaten at home in Europe in their last 16 games, a statistic which will give them confidence. The champions though do need to raise their game; Zenit are seventh in the Russian top flight and could only draw against Lokomotiv Moscow at the weekend.
There is a sense of real dejection amongst AC Milan supporters, an acceptance that the club’s place at the top table of European clubs has been given up. The departure of virtually an entire team of experienced stars in the summer, combined with the sales of the younger torchbearers Zlatan Ibrahimovic and Thiago Silva, saw season ticket sales at Milan’s San Siro plunge to 21,000. Signings were quickly made before the window shut, but this is a Milan side finding its feet in more ways than one.
Just two wins from seven Serie A games so far, combined with one draw and three defeats, tells the story of Massimiliano Allegri’s side. In the Rossoneri’s opening Champions League match, an uninspiring and dour 0-0 draw was played out at home to Anderlecht. Milan fans are utterly depressed and do not expect the situation to change quickly.
And so, Milan head to Russia with expectations low. A draw would most probably be hailed as a good result and Allegri can be expected to set his side up just as much not to lose as to win. There is some hope though, specifically young forward Stephan El Shaarawy, who has scored four goals in six games. The talent, with Egyptian roots, could be a surprise package for which Zenit are unprepared.
Krylia Sovetov 2-2 Zenit (22/09; Premier League)
Baltika Kaliningrad 1-2 (25/09; Russian Cup)
Zenit 1-1 Lokomotiv Moscow (29/09; Premier League)
Udinese 2-1 AC Milan (23/09; Serie A)
AC Milan 2-0 Cagliari (26/09; Serie A)
Parma 1-1 AC Milan (29/09; Serie A)
Zenit: Igor Denisov
AC Milan: Alexandre Pato (doubt); Sulley Muntari; Mathieu Flamini (doubt); Didac Vila
Players to watch
Zenit – Hulk: The Brazilian striker has already scored two goals for his new club, one in the Russian Premier League and one in the Russian Cup. While they were important, Zenit need Hulk to find the back of the net in Europe to help the side qualify from Group C.
AC Milan – Stephan El Shaarawy: The young striker is the bright light of Milan’s season and appears to be flourishing under the pressure of making up for the failings of his team-mates. Able to cause Zenit problems and with sky high confidence, El Shaarawy is one to watch.
Zenit suffered a big blow in losing heavily at Malaga in their first group game and that has piled pressure on the side for this. An improvement is surely needed, but they face a Milan side clearly adjusting to new realities. Milan start as second favourites here and Zenit should have enough to get the win, but it won’t be a walkover. Zenit 1-0 AC Milan.
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