A big night in Portugal as Benfica host Zenit in the Champions League. Mark O'Haire (@MarkOHaire) gives us his view.
Benfica v Zenit St Petersburg | Tuesday 19:45 | BT Sport 2
Andre Villas Boas has fond memories of the Estadio da Luz. The Portuguese coach was in charge of Porto during their spectacular treble-winning campaign when claiming the title in Benfica’s own backyard.
That was just one of three victories in the Eagles’ nest during his superbly successful spell with Porto and since leaving his homeland behind, AVB masterminded a Champions League double over the same opponents in last season’s competition with his current crew, Zenit St Petersburg.
The two teams lock horns again in Lisbon on Tuesday night and Villas Boas has urged his side to pick up a positive result in the Portuguese capital, to keep their Champions League dreams alive ahead of the second leg.
The Sky Blues boss is well aware the difficult weather conditions and intimidating atmosphere at their Petrovsky Stadium base could play a significant and decisive part in who’ll progress to the quarter-finals with Zenit’s lack of competitive match action possibly playing a key role this midweek.
Of course, the former Spurs manager dismissed claims his visitors will be undercooked despite not playing a competitive match since December due to a domestic winter break. The Russians have spent their time off in Qatar, Portugal and Spain in a bid to be ready for the off but even so, it’s hard to justify their claims due to that downtime.
It’s a shame, really. I’d have been keen to inspect the 29/10 (Bet365) on offer for an away victory but the Sky Blues have been in a similar position for each of the last two seasons and were beaten on both occasions – going down 2-0 to Monaco 12 months ago and 4-2 at home to Dortmund prior to that.
Zenit did finish top of the tree in Group H, winning their first five matches before taking their foot off the pedal in their final fixture with Gent. The Russians were lively in attack with the likes of Hulk and Artem Dzyuba doing particular damage and they’ll certainly fancy their chances of inflicting more.
Last year’s meetings will no doubt be at the forefront of their positive mind-set – they handed Benfica their first defeat in 14 European home games at the time – and although Viktor Faizulin, Vyacheslav Malafeev and Igor Smolnikov are all injured, I still reckon the Russians grab a goal.
Benfica, Portuguese champions for the past two seasons, have reached the knockout stages for the first time since 2011/12 but have more or less failed their biggest tests this term under Rui Vitoria.
Last Friday night the Eagles meekly surrendered their domestic lead to neighbours Sporting Lisbon and their former coach Jorge Jesus courtesy of a 2-1 home defeat to Porto in O Clássico.
An away win at Atletico Madrid is without doubt their standout result this season but Benfica were outplayed in that fixture and fortunate to take maximum points. They’ve since been turned over by Atletico and Sporting in front of their demanding home supporters before their Friday fright night with Porto.
The Eagles will be without the experience of Brazilian centre back and club captain Luisao, fellow central defender Lisandro Lopez is a doubt after missing the last two game whilst midfielders Ljubomir Fejsa and Eduardo Salvio also face fitness tests. So as you can see, the case against Benfica is stacking up.
But I’m going to back Both Teams To Score at 13/12 with 888 Sport. The hosts failed to keep a clean sheet in their last five Champions League games with their sole shutout this season coming against Astana in Lisbon.
Rui Vitoria's side saw Both Teams To Score prove a profitable formula in five of those group-stage games as well as five of their last six domestic duels. The Eagles notched at least twice in four of their pool fixtures but also shipped as many in three of their final four.
Nevertheless, there is attacking talent at Benfica’s disposal with Kostas Mitroglu and Raul Jimenez competing to partner and leading scorer Jonas in a 4-4-2.
The Russians have failed to keep their sheets clean in nine of their last 11 away days in Russian Premier League and Champions League action but did see the BTTS bet bank in four of their six group games too.
Benfica v Zenit St Petersburg – Both Teams To Score (13/12 888 Sport)
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