Europa League Preview: Celtic – Zenit St. Petersburg

Sebastian Driussi celebrating a goal against Rubin Kazan. | Вячеслав Евдокимов/fc-zenit.ru

Celtic FC v FC Zenit St. Petersburg – Thursday, 15 February, 20:05 GMT – Celtic Park, Glasgow.

After their long winter break, Zenit St. Petersburg return to the action as they take on Celtic in the Europa League. Whilst not the easiest draw for Zenit, Celtic represent a very winnable game for the blue-white-sky blues. Zenit’s Europa League campaign has so far been mainly positive. Of course there have been the odd few hiccups such as a tight two legged aggregate victory in the Europa League play-off stage against Dutch side FC Utrecht and a late equaliser against Norwegian side Rosenborg in the group stages. This has however been overshadowed by some fine results such as two 3-1 victories home and away against Real Sociedad.

Tactical Analysis

Roberto Mancini tend to fluctuate between 4-4-2 and 4-3-3 at Zenit. He is thus in charge of a tactically versatile team, which is able to change formation and style during a game.

Because of the nature of the first leg away at Celtic Park, Zenit are expected to switch between a 4-3-3 when Zenit are in possession and a 4-5-1 formation in defence. When defending, the two wide forwards will tuck into to support the central midfield three.

Since Zenit are returning from a long winter break, they are likely to be a bit rusty. The team hasn’t played a competitive match since December, and Mancini is obviously aware of that. Therefore, Zenit are likely to sit back and play on counters. Up front they have quick strikers in Aleksandr Kokorin, Emiliano Rigoni and Dmitri Poloz, who can threat Celtic’s defenders with their aggressive forward runs.

Team News

During the winter break, Zenit were at two winter training camps. The first in Dubai and the second in Turkey, where they played a total of eight friendly matches. On the whole, Zenit’s results in these games were very positive, with six wins, one draw and one loss. The highlight of the winter were impressive 5-0 and 4-1 victories over FC Copenhagen and Guangzhou Evergrande respectively.

However, friendly results are always a difficult indicator to gauge how a team will return to competitive matches after a long break. Zenit and other Russian clubs have often found it difficult post-Christmas when pitched up against teams who have been back playing competitive games for several weeks.

Zenit’s fitness concerns are topped with a few injuries. Branislav Ivanovic has stayed in St. Petersburg, and is fighting to recover in time of the return leg. Furthermore, regular fullbacks Domenico Criscito and Igor Smolnikov, goalkeeper Andrey Lunev and back up fullback Denis Terentyev have all suffered from injuries recently. They have however all travelled to Glasgow and should be ready to play.

On the plane to Glasgow is also recently signed striker Anton Zabalotny. The young Russian international joined Zenit from FC Tosno this winter, and he is expected to deputize for the strikers.

This winter, Zenit said goodbye to Artem Dzyuba and Ivan Novoseltsev, who both joined Arsenal Tula on loan, while Oleg Shatov was sent to FC Krasnodar. This means Zenit’s squad might be more balanced, but also that the depth has taken a serious hit.

Key Players

Emanuel Mammana – With veteran Ivanovic’s absence, extra responsibility falls on the shoulders of his young central defensive partner, Emanuel Mammana. Having just turned 22, Mammana – now after five months in Russian football following his move from French giants Olympique Lyonnais in the summer – appears settled and was putting in some fine displays pre-winter break for Zenit.

Leandro Paredes – One of many of the Argentine contingent signed this summer by Zenit, Paredes is fastly developing into Zenit’s best central midfield player. 23-year-old Paredes was acquired from Italian giants AS Roma in the summer for a fee that could be valued up to €27 million and based on his performances so far he is comfortably repaying that fee. His fine range of short and medium range passing and ability to dictate a game from deep in midfield mean Celtic could have a difficult night on their hands trying to contain him.

Aleksandr Kokorin – Prior to this season, 26-year-old Kokorin’s career had failed to live up to the expectations which arose when he burst onto the scene in 2008 at Dinamo Moscow. Yet this season under Mancini, Kokorin finally is starting to consistently show once more the eye-catching displays that helped him burst onto the scene. Ten goals in 19 league games alongside eight goals in eight Europa League games means that Celtic’s defence must be fully concentrated to avoid becoming the latest victim to Kokorin’s goal-scoring prowess.

Predicted Lineup

Yuri Lodygin – Igor Smolnikov, Emmanuel Mammana, Miha Mevlja, Domenico Criscito – Mátias Kranevitter, Leandro Paredes, Daler Kuzyaev – Dmitri Poloz, Aleksandr Kokorin, Emiliano Rigoni

Prediction

Zenit have a few issues themselves with injuries and lack of competitive football for two months. However, the last three months has arguably seen Celtic’s level drop as they lost twice in the Premier League against Hearts and Kilmarnock, and they look weaker than the side who went an entire league season unbeaten last season. Add to this the injuries that Celtic are suffering from at present and Zenit’s quality, and a victory by a single goal is not impossible. Though it certainly will be tight.

Celtic 1-2 Zenit

Author: Richard Pike

Wigan Athletic season ticket holder whose first memories of Russian football were TV highlights of Spartak’s 4-1 victory against Arsenal in the 2000-01 Champions League. Huge fan of the Russian Premier League, other mid-ranking European leagues and the English Football League

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