Match Preview: Zenit St. Petersburg v. Liverpool, 02.14.13

Claudio Villa

Liverpool travel to Russia for the first leg of their tie with Zenit, where they're hopeful of earning a result ahead of the return fixture next week.

As has often--and unfortunately--been the case over the past few seasons, Liverpool have a chance to erase the sour taste from a bad result with another match just days later. And, depending on how tomorrow goes, they might be in the same boat when they welcome Swansea to Anfield on Sunday. But it is at least nice to have a distraction from the mediocrity and the Twitter etceteras and the suffocating realization that, once and for all, we might not hear a Liverpool player interviewed by the official website about their fourth place hopes again.

We'll move on, though, and it's nice that we can do so to a match with actual real-life meaning, as tomorrow will go a long way towards determining whether or not Liverpool will be a part of the Europa League beyond next Thursday. They've been hit-or-miss in the competition to this point but managed to get the results they needed, a feat they'll need to repeat tomorrow in St. Petersburg in order to give themselves a chance at progression.

There are some big, big names on the continent in this stage of the competition--Lyon, Inter, Atletico, Chelsea, Benfica, Leverkusen, and Ajax are all taking part at this point, and littered throughout are solid teams from smaller leagues that have a chance at knocking off one of the bigger sides.

Zenit don't necessarily fit into either category--the Russian Premier League is trying to establish itself as one of Europe's top leagues (albeit slowly), and the squad at Luciano Spaletti's disposal is, at least on paper, talented enough to challenge any side in any league. The results have belied that slightly; they're currently third in league and five points behind CSKA Moscow, where they've sat since last playing a competitive match in their 1-1 draw against Anzhi on December 12. That followed their last Champions League tie at the San Siro, in which they defeated AC Milan 1-0 to secure third in the group and a spot in the Europa League, a consolation prize for a squad that must have liked their chances when the Champions League draw was announced.

The names are recognizable for anyone who's followed European football over the last few years, with Hulk and Axel Witsel signing on as high-profile signings at the start of September. They joined a squad that contained Danny, Bruno Alves, Roman Shirokov, Aleksander Kerzhakov, and Vyacheslav Malafeev. Unrest and concerns about having an actual team have persisted, though, including the well-publicized banishment of former captain Igor Denisov to the reserves along with Kerzhakov only weeks after Witsel and Hulk arrived. Talented names, but as far as a team goes, Zenit are seemingly anything but.

Oh, and there's all of this, which has justifiably caused concerns for Liverpool.

For Liverpool:

Reina
Wisdom Skrtel Coates Enrique
Allen Lucas Henderson
Downing Borini Sterling

Monday-Thursday-Sunday is one of the more challenging stretches Liverpool have had in awhile, but it doesn't look to have had any bearing on the squad Brendan Rodgers will be taking to St. Petersburg. Martin Kelly remains injured and both Daniel Sturridge and Philippe Coutinho are ineligible for participation.

I'm curious to see what happens throughout the eleven tomorrow, and starting at the back, there's not really any easy picking. Pepe Reina will likely start--although Brad Jones wouldn't be a shock--behind a back line that's got the potential to either look the exact same as Monday or nothing like that at all. A shift in formation is possible but not probable; I'll guess that Andre Wisdom, Martin Skrtel, and Sebastian Coates come in, even though that might be a suicide mission given the latter pair's performance at Oldham. I just don't see Jamie Carragher and Daniel Agger coming back so quickly and being available for Swansea's visit on Sunday, which is surely a match that Rodgers will want to have his best eleven ready for.

Jordan Henderson's substitution fairly early in the second half against West Brom confounded, and I'll venture that it was with tomorrow's match in mind. A midfield three with him, Joe Allen, and Lucas holding would make sense, although that mandates that, similarly to Carragher and Agger, the Brazilian is available to be back so soon. Steven Gerrard's a possibility but seems much more likely for the home leg, and after Jonjo Shelvey's struggles Monday, it's doubtful he starts again.

With Sturridge and Coutinho ruled out, Rodgers will either have to gamble that Luis Suarez can play his way back to form rather than rest, or go with Fabio Borini as his main forward. Both are possible, and maybe Borini on the right with Suarez central and Raheem Sterling left looks the best on paper, but I'm wary of having Suarez--who's clearly been on tired legs the last two matches--included from the start. I'll go for Stewart Downing, who was very good against West Brom, on the right, Borini central, and Sterling to finally get another start on the left.

Early kickoff tomorrow, set for 5:00PM GMT/12:00PM EST. ITV4 will be carrying coverage in the UK, and Fox Soccer Plus airing it live in the US. Team sheets should be out for both sides an hour or so before kickoff, and those will run in the matchday thread that'll go up in the early morning hours. We'll have the overnight thread as well, along with any other news from now until the match gets going.

Hope to see you around.

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