Celtic’s European adventure continues on Thursday night as the Hoops host Zenit St Petersburg in the last-32 of the Europa League. Brendan Rodgers’ side narrowly beat Partick Thistle 3-2 in the Scottish Cup to progress to the quarter-final. The Bhoys’ opponents though, haven’t played a competitive fixture since early December due to the Russian Premier League winter break. However, Zenit have played eight friendly matches in that time period, losing just one of those games.
Founded in 1925, Zenit St Petersburg finished winners of their Europa League group and qualified for the knockout stages without losing a single group game. Zenit, who have won Russian league championship five times, play in the Krestovsky Stadium (commonly known as the Zenit Arena) which was opened last year and will host seven World Cup fixtures this summer. Zenit currently sit second in the Russian Premier League, eight points behind Lokomotiv Moscow. They are managed by a familiar name in Roberto Mancini, who has been in charge of the Russian side since the start of this season.
Zenit St Petersburg are regular participants in European competition, but were knocked out of last season’s Europa League by Anderlecht who dumped out the Russians on away goals at the last-32 stage. This campaign though has seen the side from St Petersburg ease to group victory, seeing them through to the latter rounds of another European competition for the eighth successive season.
Similarly to Celtic, Zenit started their European season earlier than usual playing two qualifying rounds to make it to the Europa League group stages. In a group consisting of of FK Varder, Real Sociedad and Rosenborg, the Russians scored in every group game with the only blemish on a perfect six wins out of six being a 1-1 draw in Norway.
Out with this season’s campaign, Zenit St Petersburg have had a habit of reaching knockout stage football, but have only progressed from the last-16 once in any European competition in eight years. However the Russians do boast one European trophy which was won in 2008. They overcame 10 teams on their way to Manchester that year, beating Rangers 2-0 in the final.
Celtic though have never played Zenit St Petersburg but have faced Russian opposition six other times, winning three and only losing one of those encounters.
When it comes to danger men, Zenit St Petersburg have a plethora of talent amongst their ranks, but they do have a few marquee stars which Celtic will have to keep an eye on when the two sides meet each other.
Aleksandr Kokorin is Zenit’s biggest threat up top and could potentially cause the Celtic defence havoc if he isn’t marked well on Thursday night. The Russian striker has been one of Zenit’s most influential players this season, scoring an impressive 10 goals in 20 league appearances for Zenit. However, his goalscoring prowess is even better in European competition, with Kokorin netting eight goals in nine European matches this season.
While the Hoops backline have to be wary of Kokorin, they will certainly need to be focussed on stopping Argentine winger, Emiliano Rigoni. Rigoni who initially didn’t feature as much under Roberto Mancini, has been a mainstay in recent games and has been one of the more creative players in the Zenit side. He too possess an impressive scoring record in the Europa League this season having scored six goals in six appearances. His trickery and overall technique on the ball is an area where Celtic should pay attention to on Thursday.
With Celtic’s long-standing issue dealing with set pieces, the Hoops should be extra wary of former Chelsea player Branislav Ivanovic on Thursday night, should he play. The Serbian, has a knack of popping up with headed goals and could be a real issue to deal with if he does feature. While Zenit have many creative players in their side, they are a very physical side and could play this way when they play the Hoops, which may cause concern for Brendan Rodgers.
Where the match may be won or lost
It’s another one of those European nights, but under Brendan Rodgers special nights have been a rarity under the Celtic boss at home. If anything it’s worrying that the Hoops don’t play to their full potential under the lights on a European night. Celtic teams in the past have lived up to the expectation of performing well on a European night and they have done so with success.
However, with something big to play for on the line, Celtic should take the game to Zenit for the first 10 minutes or so. Those opening minutes it would appear are so crucial for Celtic to get off to a good start, particularly in Europe.
Good starts in past matches at home to Astana, Manchester City, Bayern Munich in European matches and most recently Hearts and Partick Thistle – set the tone and give Celtic that extra boost they need for the rest of the game. However, lapses in concentration like Saturday can’t happen when you play against as side with better quality. Zenit will punish Celtic if they do.
If anything a clean sheet is so important in two-legged tie in Europe. With Dedryck Boyata and Craig Gordon missing, it is vital for the replacement players to be switched on from first whistle to last. There is no doubt the quality that Zenit posses is much greater than Celtic but it is so critical for Bhoys to not lose an early goal. If they do then it’s an uphill task for Celtic to get back into the tie.
Of course the good news is that Brendan Rodgers does have a good few selection headaches as to what team he plays on Thursday. It would appear that Moussa Dembele will play up top but it is who accompanies behind him which could cause some interest. Zenit’s physicality will be relished by players like Scott Brown and Kieran Tierney but whoever supports Dembele up top has to be willing to track back and play to this physical match the Hoops will face in middle of the park.
While Charly Musonda hasn’t really ignited his Celtic career so far, he could be given the chance to feature on Thursday. If you remember a few years ago both Gary Mackay-Steven and Stuart Armstrong made their European debut at home to Inter Milan and were both brilliant on the night. A similar berth could happen on Thursday night.
As usual the crowd have a major part to play on Thursday. For the team’s chances it is vital that the support sticks with the side for the full 90 minutes. The supporters are what really drives the team on to play that extra 10% and they will need this when the two sides meet.
Celtic have to make the home advantage count and really force Zenit St Petersburg onto the back foot as much as possible early on. Being passive will only lead to the inevitable. The Russians haven’t played a competitive game in over two months and they could feel the pressure early on.
Since the end of the Champions League group stages, all the preparation has been building towards this all-important clash. A scoreless draw is a better outcome than an end-to-end goalfest, leaving us with an uphill task in the return leg next week. Celtic have to perform on Thursday night and make Paradise the intimidating fortress as it once was.