Anderlecht – Zenit Preview, Europa League Last 32, Feb 16, 2017

Zenit opens the new year 2017 tomorrow with the first leg of Europa League Last 32 away at Anderlecht Brussels. Admittedly, I don’t know too much about Anderlecht. I saw them last summer in the CL qualification round against Rostov, where they were reasonably solid in the away fixture getting a 2-2 draw. They probably expected to finish the business in the return leg at home but things didn’t work out so well for them. Rostov was led by coach Berdyev whose sides are extremely hard to break when they concentrate on defense, so Rostov did not allow the Belgians to score in the return fixture and inflicted a painful 2-0 defeat on them, sending Anderlecht down into Europa League. Still, Anderlecht possesses sufficient power upfront as they managed to score 56 goals in the 26 games in the Belgian League where they are currently joint leaders with Brugge on 52 points, with the goal difference of 56-26. Anderlecht is the highest scoring team in the Belgian top flight at the moment. They beat Zulte-Waregem comfortably 4-2 at home on Sunday in their last game.

Zenit comes out of the winter break and this will be the team’s first official game since early December. The Petersburgers can boast very prolific attack, as they scored 17 goals in 6 group matches last fall. Coach Mircea Lucescu typically uses 4-2-3-1 formation with the lone striker Dzyba upfront supported by brilliant Brazilian Giuliano in the trequartista role. There’s a clear surplus of the attacking players on the wings: Shatov, Kokorin, and Mak are joined by former captain Danny who seems to have finally recovered from a long-term injury and is probably ready to play, which makes it 4 players for 2 places on the wings. The pair of holding midfielders will probably consist of tough guy Javi Garcia and Brazilian Hernani who has been signed as the replacement for Axel Witsel in this role. Overall, Zenit attack and midfield look pretty strong under Lucescu. Unfortunately I’m less convinced about the defense and especially the goalkeeper — the defensive capabilities is where I think Zenit’s main weaknesses are. In particular, since the departure of Garay last summer the team has been lacking a reliable pair of central defenders. With Lombaerts plagued by injuries, left back Criscito has been deputizing as central back alongside Luis Neto, which didn’t always work very well. In the winter transfer window Zenit signed a top-class Serbian defender Branislav Ivanovic from Chelsea. He can play as center back but there are indications that in the tomorrow’s game he will feature as the right back instead. Ivanovic has amazing pace and from what I saw his crosses are also excellent, so it looks like his participation will actually improve Zenit attack, and not necessarily the defense! Goalkeeper Lodygin is not very reliable. Along with his excellent instinct saves, he’s making way too many simple mistakes and some Zenit supporters admit they nearly have a panic attack every time Lodygin has to clear the ball under pressure. Zenit signed another goalkeeper this winter (Lunev from Ufa) but he’s not listed for the Europa League and with the departure of the backup goalkeeper Mikhail Kerzhakov to Ufa, Lodygin seems to be the only reasonable choice for the remainder of this season’s European campaign. Probable Zenit lineup for tomorrow:

       Danny - Dzyuba - Mak
       Javi Garcia - Hernani
Zhirkov - Criscito - Neto - Ivanovic

Zenit is the favourite to progress from this pair because the St.Petersburg outfit clearly has more quality in their ranks. However with the home advantage, Anderlecht surely have their chances for a positive result in the first leg. I think that most likely we will see an entertaining encounter with goals. Strong Anderlecht attack should be able to score against not very convincing Zenit defense at least once. At the other end, Zenit definitely should be able to score as well, because Lucescu will not park the bus in front of own penalty area but his team will rather play attacking football. Both teams to score is thus very likely, and the chances to see more than two goals are also very high in my opinion, despite this being the first leg of the tie. Also, I think Zenit will not lose in this first leg, getting at least a scored draw.

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