Celtic vs Zenit Saint Petersburg – Thursday, February 15, 20:05 GMT/21:05 CET – Celtic Park – Glasgow, Scotland.
As Celtic amble towards another Scottish Premier League title, their attentions turn to another Europa League giant in Zenit St. Petersburg. Ever since Rangers were liquidated six years – and subsequently reformed at the foot of the professional league system – the Bhoys have faced next to no competition domestically, but have consistently struggled to make an impression on a continental stage. The last time they made it past the first knockout stage of any European competition was 14 years ago.
Recent weeks have seen grave concerns over the Glasgwegians’ defence after they slipped to a shock 1-0 league defeat to Kilmarnock and conceded twice to Partick Thistle in their most recent outing. Teenage centre-back Kristoffer Ajer has forced his way into the backline in recent weeks and has shaken off an ankle injury sustained a fortnight ago, but Dedryck Boyata’s groin strain is casting substantial doubts over his involvement. New signing Marvin Compper is unavailable after appearing for RB Leipzig in the Champions League this season, but Swedish fullback Mikaël Lustig is available.
The Champions League campaign was rescued only by the slenderest of margins, as they squeezed past Anderlecht into third place on head-to-head record having conceded 18 goals in their six group games. Even way back in August they shipped four goals against Kazakh outfit Astana in the qualifiers, and now face the Europa League’s highest-scoring side. Celtic Park is famous for its deafening atmosphere though and boasts one of the largest capacities of sides left in the competition at just over 60,000.
Zenit have undergone some minor spring cleaning in their squad, sending Artem Dzyuba and Ivan Novoseltsev out on loan to Arsenal Tula, Oleg Shatov on loan to Krasnodar, and bringing in Anton Zabolotniy from Tosno up front. They will still harbour hopes of chasing down runaway Russian Premier league leaders Lokomotiv Moscow but are also caught in a finely-balanced battle to snatch a Champions League qualification place with two points separating them from three other rivals down to fifth place.
Once again they breezed through their Europa League group with consummate ease after winning all but one of their fixtures. This story has a habit of repeating itself though; a stellar performance in the opening half of the season, followed by a collapse in the knockout stages. Last season’s group against Maccabi Tel Aviv, Dundalk and AZ Alkmaar saw five wins from the first five matches before a pathetic display on their return to competitive football against Anderlecht in the first leg.
With Emiliano Rigoni enjoying a fruitful group stage to become the competition proper’s joint-top goalscorer and Alexander Kokorin finally breaking into the form his potential always promised, Zenit are a dangerous prospect for the Scottish champions. Anything other than a passage to the round of 16 will be unacceptable for Roberto Mancini after the significant outlay the club have made on his behalf to build a strong squad. In reality, Zenit should be one of the favourites for the competition, but before they can beat any other teams, they must first beat their tendency to self-implode at this stage of the season.
Celtic vs Zenit Saint Petersburg – Players to Watch
Mousa Dembélé #10 – Celtic
The Frenchman is an electric runner who will be tasked with stretching the Russian defence and using his instinct to unsettle them. While there is plenty of talent around him to provide opportunities in the shape of Scott Sinclair, James Forrest and Charly Musonda, an injury to Leigh Griffiths means the goalscoring burden lies more heavily on the youngster’s shoulders. It would be far too risky an approach to attempt a defensive approach and fly to Russia without an advantage, so Dembélé’s performance will play a key role in the outcome of this tie.
Daler Kuzyaev #14 – Zenit St. Petersburg
The Russian international midfielder has been in splendid form this season from the core of midfield for Zenit and has even chipped in with some spectacular long-range goals too. The atmosphere will be intense, so creative talents like Rigoni and Kokorin will need a solid platform on which to threaten Celtic’s defence, leaving Kuzyaev to harry, regain possession and instigate attacks. The former Akhmat Grozny man is a forward-thinking passer, always looking to advance play instead of recycling the ball sideways, and will be vital to securing a positive result.
Futbolgrad Network Prediction: Celtic vs Zenit Saint Petersburg – 1-1
Celtic vs Zenit Saint Petersburg – Match Stats
- Celtic emerged victorious the last time they faced Russian opposition, beating Spartak Moscow five years ago in the Champions League
- Celtic haven’t won a single home European game from groups stages onwards in their last 11, including five straight defeats
- The last time Celtic appeared at this stage of the Europa League, they were beaten by Internazionale – managed by current Zenit boss Roberto Mancini
- Zenit have conceded once in each of their last five European matches.
- They have been defeated in each of their last four continental knockout matches away from home
- The last time he faced Celtic, Alexander Kokorin scored the winner in Glasgow for Dinamo Moscow in the Champions League
Celtic vs Zenit Saint Petersburg – Possible Lineups
Gordon – Lustig, Ajer, Šimunović, Tierney – Ntcham, Brown – Sinclair, McGregor, Forrest – Dembélé
Manager: Brendan Rodgers
Zenit Saint Petersburg
Lunev – Smolnikov, Ivanovic, Mammana, Criscito – Kuzyaev, Paredes, Kranevitter – Rigoni, Kokorin, Erokhin
Manager: Roberto Mancini
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.