Andrew Flint –
Benfica vs Zenit St. Petersburg – Tuesday, December 10, 20:00 GMT/21:00 CET – Estádio da Luz, Lisbon – Portugal
It all comes down to this: win comfortably, and Benfica live to fight another day in Europe this season. Anything else and they are out. In a relatively even group, the former European champions were earmarked by many as the slight weak link in Group G of the Champions League. Lyon had undergone some cosmetic surgery behind the scenes but still boasted a seasoned squad with exciting young talent coming through, while RB Leipzig have remained in control of top spot in the group as many expected. Zenit St. Petersburg may traditionally tail off in the spring part of the season, but in five of their last six campaigns they’ve made it through their European group stage.
Tomás Tavares is an example of a fresh talent being shoved ruggedly into the limelight under testing circumstances. The defence into which he has slotted after injuries to André Almeida has conceded in every game so far in this campaign, and which has the only negative goal difference in the group. At the other end though, Benfica have also scored in every group-stage game so far, including twice last time out to snatch an unexpected point in Germany to give them the slenderest of chances of Europa League football.
“When the collective comes out perfectly,” commented star forward Carlos Vinícius this weekend, “the individual also appears. I have been very happy since I arrived, the group welcomed me well. I’m very happy for Benfica. I work day by day, and if the coach needs me, I’ll go inside, just like Seferović and [de] Tomás. We are all prepared.” Seferović has long offered a relatively manageable prospect for opposing defenders – the tall Swiss international’s two goals in 12 league games this season is only marginally better than the strike rate of centre-back Rúben Dias – while the most expensive signing, Raul de Tomás, has an even worse rate of two in 16 overall. A perfect collective and individual performance from Vinícius will be needed to keep continental ambitions alive.
Zenit St. Petersburg, like their hosts, are comfortably top of their domestic league table. That’s about where the comparisons end; Zenit head into this fixture knowing it is their last for three months, and that their own league title is even more firmly within their grasp. All title rivals in the Russian Premier League seem determined to throw away what scant chances they once had of challenging the reigning champions, leaving Sergey Semak’s men just eight wins from reclaiming their crown. In all likelihood, they will need far fewer than that on current form.
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After a few years stumbling well below their potential within their own country, their inevitable return to the top of the tree domestically again leaves Europe as the final frontier. Too many group stages have been obliterated, only for the knockouts to deliver the telling blow to their hopes. Anything beyond the next round would be a wonderfully unexpected bonus for Zenit, but it is the only place for them to grow into unless they simply continue treading water. The absence of a cultured warrior like Yaroslav Rakitskiy through suspension is a major spanner in the works; his character would have been tailor-made for such a battle.
The man most likely to step into his shoes is Porto’s on-loan defender Yordan Osorio, who has barely set foot on the pitch since his temporary move in the summer. His presence might add an element of spice to proceedings, but more importantly an opportunity to be exploited. With such tight standings and subsequent permutations for each result, the balance of the game could hinge on the confidence that emanates from the backline. Wilmar Barrios will almost certainly be instructed to drop back to cover the defence to a degree, which will in turn pile more pressure on the likes of Magomed Ozdoev to thread passes through to the forwards. With Sardar Azmoun and Artem Dzyuba as a deadly partnership though, Zenit have the perfect ingredients to kill off set-piece of counter-attacking opportunities.
Benfica vs Zenit St. Petersburg – Player to Watch
Carlos Vinícius #95 – Benfica
The former Napoli forward has had to wait for his chance in the starting lineup, but is more than making up for it. This summer saw a heavy transfer turnover with João Félix departing for a huge transfer fee while Vinícius made the Italian side a tidy profit without having ever actually appeared for them on the pitch. Injury and Haris Seferović stood in his way until his first start just over a month ago, but he has already bagged 13 goals at a rate of one every 64 minutes. Benfica’s task is clear: win or bust, and by at least two goals. Carlos Vinícius’ blistering pace and no little strength on the ball will be a handful for a defence shorn of its key element through suspension.
Branislav Ivanović #6 – Zenit St. Petersburg
In the absence of his regular partner Yaroslav Rakitskiy, the onus on Ivanovic to not just hold the defensive line tightly together but also instigate counter-attacks will be critical. Ivanovic is in the dying embers of a career that has seen him win continental and domestic titles wherever he has been so one might on the surface question the desperate desire to prove a point at this stage. As ferocious a leader as he was more than a decade ago, there is little chance of his desire slipping. The question is whether he can settle the inexperienced nerves of Porto loanee Yordan Osorio alongside him, while also threatening in the opposition penalty area himself.
Benfica vs Zenit St. Petersburg – Match Stats
- Benfica’s only hope of European football into the spring is to beat Zenit by at least two clear goals, and even then their best possible finish is third in the group
- Bruno Lage’s side have won just three of their last 18 Champions League matches from the group stages onwards
- In their last 17 home European matches, Benfica have only twice managed to score more than one goal
- Zenit have won six of their nine encounters with Portuguese opposition
- If the Russian giants match Lyon’s result at home to RB Leipzig they will qualify for the knockout stages
- Zenit haven’t won any of their last 11 European away matches (D3, L8)
Futbolgrad Network Prediction: Benfica vs Zenit St. Petersburg: 0-1
Benfica vs Zenit St. Petersburg – Possible Lineups
Vlachodimos – Tavares, Dias, Ferro, Grimaldo – Pizzi, Taarabt, Gabriel, Cervi – Chiquinho – Vinícius
Manager: Bruno Lage
Zenit St. Petersburg
Kerzhakov – Karavaev, Osorio, Ivanović, Santos – Ozdoev, Barrios, Erokhin, Shatov – Azmoun, Dzyuba
Manager: Sergey Semak
Andrew Flint is an English freelance football writer living in Tyumen, Western Siberia, with his wife and two daughters. He has featured on These Football Times, Russian Football News, Four Four Two and Sovetski Sport, mostly focusing on full-length articles about derbies, youth development and the game in Russia. Due to his love for FC Tyumen, he is particularly interested in lower league Russian football and is looking to establish himself in time for the 2018 World Cup. Follow Andrew on Twitter @AndrewMijFlint.