Both les Mauve et Blanc and the Sine-Belo-Golubye were eliminated early from the Champions League, and both will be looking to make an impression in the second tier...
Anderlecht and Zenit St. Petersburg will both feel they should have achieved a spot in the Champions League group stages this week, but instead they face each other in the Europa League, very much the silver medal event of the continent’s calendar.
After earning a 2-2 draw against Partizan in Serbia, the cards seemed to be placed in favour of Anderlecht going into the second leg of their elite level play-off encounter. A brace of goals from Cleo took the Steamroller two goals clear in Belgium, but the home side battled back impressively to force extra-time and ultimately penalties.
It was during the spot kicks that les Mauve et Blanc saw their bottle smash, with three of the highest penalty kicks that will ever be seen at such a level climbing over the bar as they crashed out in thoroughly frustrating circumstances.
Ariel Jacobs’ side have been unflinching domestically, conceding only once in their opening six encounters and opening up a goal difference of plus 12 in the process. They remain only second in the Belgian First League as they have twice been held scoreless. Indeed, in their ten matches in all competition, the Brussels side are unbeaten, and that’s a record they’ll wish to maintain through Thursday night’s difficult clash.
That Zenit St. Petersburg are not competing in the Champions League this season is one of the biggest surprises on the European stage. After spending monumentally over the course of the last year – nearly €60 million according to estimates – Luciano Spalletti’s side were not only expected to reach the group phase, they were expected to progress through it.
Going into their second leg fixture against Auxerre, the Sine-Belo-Golubye boasted a 1-0 advantage over the French side and commanded an unbeaten run stretching back an improbable length, yet they crumbled in Burgundy, going down 2-0 and ultimately being reduced to only nine men.
A face saving mission is therefore required in the Europa League, a competition Zenit have already won when it was in the guise of the UEFA Cup little over two years ago.
The St. Petersburg outfit have not allowed their stride to be broken in the RPL, in which they are still the utterly dominant force. Through 18 games of the season they lie six points clear of nearest rivals Rubin Kazan, with two games in hand over the two-time defending champions with which they could extend their advantage.
Spalletti can therefore allow his gaze to be drawn by the continent to some extent, and in a group containing Hajduk Split and AEK Athens, the Italian will want his side to make a positive start to banish the profoundly negative memories of Auxerre.
Roland Juhasz has had hamstring problems and has undergone an ultrasound scan to try and determine the extent of his problems. He may be available for the match.
Sacha Kljestan and Jan Polak are both back, the latter after missing some training earlier this week to attend the birth of his son in the Czech Republic.
Pier Barrios, Cheikhou Kouyate (who is banned in any case) and Kanu have a pick ‘n’ mix of problems and seem very unlikely to play, while Tom De Sutter, Davy Schollen and Marcin Wasilewski continue to rehabilitate after undergoing operations.
Probable Starting XI: Proto; Gillet, Bernandez, Juhasz, Deschacht; Marecek, Biglia, Polak; Suarez, Lukaku, Boussoufa
Luciano Spalletti has named a strong squad for this encounter, though his panel does not include Aleksandr Bukharov. Igor Denisov is picked on the other hand.
Vyacheslav Malafeev and Tomas Hubocan are both banned after being sent-off against Auxerre. Aleksandr Anyukov is also suspended.
Probable Starting XI: Zhevnov; Shirokov, Bruno Alves, Lombaerts, Lukovic; Zyryanov, Semak; Bystrov, Danny, Lazovic; Kerzhakov