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Milan who were seeded in Pot 1 have been drawn in Group C in the Champions League. Goal.com takes a look at their opponents and what they can expect from them.

ANALYSIS
By Aditya Bajaj

Zenit
Zenit St. Petersburg


Performance in last year's tournament: Round of 16

How they qualified this year: Automatic qualification as Russian Premier League champions

The Manager

Having attracted AS Roma’s interest after helping Udinese to a 4th place finish in 2004-05, earning them a Champions League spot during a period when Serie A was amongst the best leagues in Europe, Luciano Spalletti made a name for himself in the peninsula winning two Coppa Italia titles with the Roman club. Upon his resignation in 2009, Zenit did well to quickly snap him on a three year deal with the ambition of winning the Russian Premier League and doing well in Europe. The Italian did not disappoint as his team has managed to win two league titles along with a Russian Cup and the Super Cup. Many credit Spain coach Vicente Del Bosque for inventing the ‘false 9’ during the Euros, but in reality it was Spaletti who first used the system back in 2005-06, when he started employing an attacking midfielder as a false striker with Francesco Totti thriving under his system.

Formation and Tactics

4-2-3-1

Spaletti is a long time patron of the 4-2-3-1 system, so commonly used today by clubs in Europe, having used it to great effect since 2006 during his time at Roma and now at the helm of the Russian champions. While in Italy, the use of a ‘false 9’ was more out of necessity and lack of options upfront, at Zenit the Italian has been blessed with a true striker in Alexandre Kerzhakov who will undoubtedly lead his attack as the lone striker. The Russian will be supported by the experienced Roman Shirikov flanked by Viktor Faizulin and their new superstar signing ‘Hulk’ on the left and the right wings respectively. Another big money signing from Benfica, Axel Witsel will form the backbone of the midfield in the centre supported by Russian international midfielder Igor Denisov. The defense looks strong with the partnership of Belgian international Nicolas Lombaerts and the experienced Bruno Alves in the centre supported by Alexandr Anyukov on the right and Italian international full back Dominico Criscito on the left. The Russian champions have an experienced custodian in Vyacheslav Malafeev who will be donning the gloves having done the same for the national team in this summer’s European Championships.


Expectations:

Having made two big signings on deadline day in the form of Brazilian superstar Hulk and Belgium international midfielder Axel Witsel for a combined fee of €80m, Zenit should now be targeting top spot in Group C. A place in the quarter-finals however will largely depend on the draw, but anything less than a place in the round of 16, will be a disaster for the big spending Russian champions.
                 
  Man to Watch - Hulk

It has to be Hulk. Zenit looked like quite an average side without the Brazilian, but his acquisition along with that of Witsel will prove to be decisive as a lot has been spent on them and results will be expected. The Brazilian’s pace and killer eye for goals will trouble any defense and considering Milan’s problems at the left back position, Hulk will look to make the most out of it. However, much depends on how quickly he adapts to the unusual climate in Russia and Zenit’s playing style.


Malaga
Malaga CF


Performance in last year's tournament: Did not qualify

How they qualified this year:  Finished 4th in La Liga last season to enter the play-off round

The Manager

Manuel Pellegrini is one of the most respected managers in Spanish football having already been at the helm of Villarreal and Real Madrid prior to his assignment with Malaga. The 58-year old guided the yellow submarine to the semi-finals in the Champions League back in the 2005-06 season and despite a brilliant season with Madrid where his team achieved a record 96 points, he was sacked because Real lost out on the title to Barcelona by a mere 3 points. Signed by Malaga in 2010, Pellegrini did not disappoint his Qatari owners as he guided the team to a 4th place finish last season which helped them qualify for the Champions League this term for the first time in the club’s history.

Formation and Tactics

4-2-3-1

Just like their Russian opponents, the Spanish too employ the 4-2-3-1 formation which is slowly picking up momentum all across the continent. Despite losing key players during the summer like Santi Cazorla and Salomon Rondon, Malaga still boast of a number of top players with French international midfielder Jeremy Toulalan, alongside Ignacio Camacho, anchoring the midfield behind the attacking trio of Joaquin, Eliseu and Spanish wonderkid Francisco Isco with 16-year old Frabrice Olinga expected to lead the line ahead of experienced campaigners such as Roque Santa Cruz and Javier Saviola. Argentine Willy Caballero will be guarding the post, with fellow countryman Martin Demichelis leading a back four consisting of Monreal, Spanish full-back Jesus Gamez and of course, club captain Welington at the centre. Also Julio Baptista’s return from injury will give Pellegrini more options upfront.

Expectations:

The Spanish club just lost two of their best players this summer in Cazorla and Rondon due to their financial problems, with the former’s loss definitely making the side weaker at the centre of midfield. With Milan and a much revamped Zenit in the same group, a second place finish in the group, at most, can be considered a success taking into account that this is also their debut season in the continent’s top club competition.
                  
  Man to Watch - Franciso Isco

With Cazorla’s departure, the focus this season is definitely on 20-year old Spain U-23 international Francisco Isco. Having been signed by Malaga in 2011 for a sum of €6m the attacking midfielder impressed last season making 32 appearances for the club scoring three in the process. He was selected to be a part of the Spanish squad for the London Olympics in the summer and has started each and every match for Malaga this season, which reflects his importance in the team.  


Anderlecht
R.S.C Anderlecht
Anderlecht

Performance in last year's tournament: Did not qualify

How they qualified this year: Entered the 3rd round Qualifiers as Belgian Champions

The Manager

45-year old John Van Den Brom is a former Dutch international footballer who retired as a player back in 2003 to start his career as a coach. He has had a good record so far having helped Dutch sides ADO Den Haag and Vitesse qualify for the Europa League over the course of two seasons from 2010 to 2012. This campaign, he replaces long time manager Ariel Jacobs as the head coach of the Belgian Champions and with an impressive resume, much will be expected from this team which has been an experienced traveller in Europe having finished as runners up on two occasions back in 1983 and 1984. He is yet to lose a match domestically so far.

Formation and Tactics

4-4-2

Anderlecht employ a more traditional 4-4-2 formation which has proved to be a success for the team so far this season, with much of the attack coming from the wings. Goalkeeper Silvio Proto is protected by a back four consisting of Iran born Swedish international Behran Safari and Belgian international full back Denis Odoi flanking a centre back partnership of Polish international Marcin Wasilewski and Belgian defender Oliver Deschacht. The center of midfield is anchored by club captain Lucas Biglia alongside Brazilian midfielder Kanu flanked by two inform wingers in Belgian international Guillaume Gillet and Serbian international and former Liverpool player Milan Jovanovic,  who have already provided 5 assists in 6 games collectively so far. Belgian forward Tom de Sutter partners Congolese international Dieumerci Mbokani upfront with the African striker having already chipped in with three goals in 6 appearances domestically.

Expectations:

Probably the weakest side in Group C, not much will be expected from the Belgian champions and a third place finish can be mooted as a more realistic target for the club which will help them earn a berth in Europa League in the round of 32. But the Champions League is no stranger to surprises and hence a fairy tale run for the Brussels based team should not be ruled out.
 
  Man to Watch - Guillaume Gillet

The 28-year old Belgian international midfielder is definitely the one to watch out for, having scored an impressive 18 goals in 47 appearances from the wings last season, also chipping in with 6 assists. He was the backbone of the side that reached the knock out round of Europa League this February scoring 5 goals in 10 appearances in the process. He has played 137 times for Anderlecht and being one of the senior most and experienced players in the club, the ‘purple and whites’ frail hopes of a good Champions League outing will be resting on his shoulders.

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