Benfica – Zenit Champions League Preview

Champions League Last 16
February 16, 2016
Benfica – Zenit

I’m rather optimistic about Zenit’s chances in this fixture. I don’t think the hosts should actually be the favorites, and here’s some factors which I think are relevant:

Zenit has better players than Benfica. Over the previous several years Zenit has been signing quality players thanks to a flow of money coming to the club from their big sponsor Gazprom. Benfica has been doing completely the opposite, they have been continously selling their best players over the years. Now Zenit actually has some of Benfica’s best players of the past, namely Garay, Javi Garcia, and Witsel. Playing against former club typically gives players additional motivation so I expect these three to do particularly well in the familiar environment of the Da Luz stadium. Benfica is a solid side but in terms of quality of players I think Zenit is better, with their only problematic position being the goalkeeper.

Zenit has Hulk. Benfica can’t boast having a player of such quality, who on a good day can decide a game singlehandedly. This season the Brazilian has also established a good partnership with Zenit’s big forward Dzyuba and collected a lot of assists, somewhat uncharacteristically for him. Hulk had played in Portugal for Porto in the past and might get additional motivation from facing the old rivals, too. It’s true that he’s inconsistent and can disappoint on a bad day, but I find it generally a good strategy to go against the odds when Zenit and Hulk are involved — they can lose unexpectedly, but can also beat almost any team. Benfica doesn’t have any big stars; they do have future stars maybe, for example they have a couple of very promising youngsters in Renato Sanches and Gonsalo Guedes but both are only 18 and not experienced enough for the high level of the CL playoffs.

Zenit coach Villas-Boas is Portugese. He knows Portugese football in general and Benfica in particular very well, probably better than his counterpart knows about Zenit. The two teams with their respective Portugese coaches play in similar style and there won’t be any tactical surprises in this fixture. Without some tactical revelations though the hosts might find it difficult to beat Zenit assuming the Petersburgers have players who are stronger individually. In addition, Zenit has better defense than Benfica. Speaking of defense, for the Tuesday’s match the hosts will miss their defensive stallwart and captain Luisao who is injured (a long-term absentee).

I watched a couple of Benfica games back in December after they had been drawn to face Zenit. My immediate reaction was “how did this team manage to qualify for the CL playoffs?!” The games I watched were 0-0 versus Madeira, and 1-0 versus Guimaraes. To me, Benfica looked rather clueless in attack, and in the second match Guimaraes was actually the better side and didn’t deserve to lose; thier coach Sergio Conceicao had all the reasons to be unhappy with the refereeing, his team played quite well while I can’t say the same about Benfica. I know that Benfica had improved since then and achieved good results in January by extending their winning streak to 11 matches in all competitions. Impressive result, but it only proves they are good at beating weaker opposition. Benfica are an attacking-minded team with vulnerable defense. They have sufficient power upfront to overcome most teams in the domestic league but playing against stronger teams is a different story; last Friday’s clash with Porto serves as an example and Benfica indeed lost 1-2 in the Classico on home soil. I won’t be surprised if I see a similar result on Tuesday.

This is Zenit’s first match after a 2-month winter break and this may be the only factor that can potentially work against them. However Zenit didn’t have problem beating PSV away in the first match of last year. A year before that they lost to Dortmund 2-4 at home in the first game, but that game involved a freak start when Zenit found themselves 0-2 down after just 4 minutes of play so that result had to be considered more of an accident rather than bad football by Zenit. I don’t believe that the long winter break will pose a big problem for the visitors.

Zenit players have particular motivation to do well in the Champions League. The domestic campaign this season has been a disaster so far, and things in the domestic league now look broken beyond repair. Realistically I see no chance for Zenit to win the title this year. Coach Villas-Boas will be leaving in June, and some of the players will follow. It is important for the players to showcase themselves at the European stage this spring. There was a mood in the team last fall to “achieve something” in Europe and couple of players actually conceded in interviews that they were giving priority to the Champions League matches over the Russian league; I see no reason why they would chsange their attitude now, so they will come out fully motivated. Zenit has been doing reasonably well in the away fixtures in the CL in the past, beating Lyon, Valencia, Benfica, Porto, Dortmund, and Milan in recent years.

The two teams met 4 times in the CL in the last 4 years, Zenit came out winners 3 times with Benfica winning once, however the Lisbon side eliminated Zenit in the 2011-12 CL playoffs. Zenit won two of the more recent meetings at the last season’s group stage.

As for Zenit team news: the only notable absence is the attacking right back Smolnikov who is injured. Initially he was expected to miss a couple of months but his recovery went faster than expected and he’ll be ready to play in about a week’s time. An experienced Russian international Zhirkov has been brought in as a backup for the full backs Anyukov and Criscito. Other acquisitions in the winter transfer window were Brazilian central midfielder Mauricio and Russian international forward Kokorin. None of the three new players are expected to start against Benfica though. Villas-Boas is very conservative when it comes to changing the starting lineup, and I expect to see all the familiar faces in the first match of 2016, like: Lodygin – Anyukov, Garay, Lombaerts, Criscito – Witsel, Javi Garcia, Danny – Shatov, Dzyuba, Hulk (this also happens to be the 11 players who started in Zenit’s last preparational match versus Orebro).

I think Zenit should be viewed as favorites and expect them to win in Lisbon (or at least not to lose), and eventually to qualify for the Champions League quarterfinals after the second leg at home.

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