MARK O’HAIRE (@MarkOHaire) talks us through his favourite Champions League fancy in the early game between Zenit and Benfica.
Zenit St Petersburg v Benfica | Wednesday 17.00 | BT Sport Europe
Temperatures are set to plunge to freezing as Benfica travel to St Petersburg looking to protect their 1-0 first leg lead in this Champions League last-16 duel on Wednesday evening.
Jonas’ stoppage-time winner at the Estadio da Luz has put the Portuguese visitors in charge but it’s fair to say, the Eagles were far from convincing winners that night in a game that featured more bookings than shots-on-target.
Rui Vitoria’s side make the journey to Russia on the back of a morale-boosting 1-0 success over bitter city rivals Sporting on Saturday, a result that’s put Benfica on course for a third consecutive domestic title. That was the visitors’ 15th win in 16 fixtures but they travel without four of their first-choice backline.
Goalkeeper Julio Cesar is crocked, right-back Andre Almeida suspended with central defender Luisao and partner Lisandro Lopez both injured. Mario Jardel, Benfica’s usual centre-back replacement is suspended.
Fourth choice Victor Lindelof is set to step into one of the vacant spots, with defensive midfielder Andreas Samaris likely filling the other. Benfica B’s Ruben Dias, who has never played for the first team, will be on the bench.
It’s an obvious cause for the concern as the Eagles look to enhance an impressive return of just three defeats in their last 11 trips to the continent across the Europa and Champions League.
There are positives for the Portuguese club, mind. Jonas, who now has 28 goals in 35 games this season, is fit and available, as is Argentine mystro Nicolas Gaitan, with Benfica bid to extend their streak of scoring in 15 of their last 16 games as guests, as well as all seven of their Champions League ties this term.
Rui Vitoria’s side will spend long spells on the back foot here with Zenit at home in their Petrovsky Stadium surroundings. Andre Villas-Boas’ boys are unbeaten as hosts since August and have now played three games since their winter break concluded, so the rust and cobwebs that dogged their first leg performance should be out of their system by now.
Sure, Zenit have been fairly meek in 2016. Their goalless 0-0 draw at FK Krasnodar at the weekend was uninspiring and saw the Blue-White slide to nine points off the top of the Russian Premier League summit, and their only other fixture was an extra-time success in the domestic cup against Kuban Krasnodar.
But there’s a purpose about Zenit when the Champions League rolls around. No Russian side has reached the quarter-finals since 2010 and the hosts themselves have never made it past the last-16. With little to play for domestically, it’s all or nothing for the White-Blue.
Zenit visibly and understandably faded after a reasonable hour in Lisbon but they’ll fancy their chances against this Benfica backline. Rangy forward Artem Dzyuba has been involved in eight of Zenit’s 13 Champions League goals and remains a serious aerial threat whilst Hulk was a frequent Benfica punisher during his Porto days.
AVB’s hosts saw off Valencia, Lyon and Gent comfortably in Russia during the group-phase and further back, Zenit are unbeaten in Europe’s premier club competition on home soil since November 2014. However, they’ll have to make do without the suspended Domenico Criscito at left-back and midfield marshal Javi Garcia.
Still, I like the odds-against offering on Zenit here. We can back the home side at 11/10 with Paddy Power and that seems more than fair considering the circumstances.
Zenit St Petersburg v Benfica – Zenit St Petersburg to win (11/10 Paddy Power)
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