Tuesday, 9 December 2008

Preview : Real Madrid Vs Zenit St. Petersburg

Real Madrid may already have sewn up their place in the knock-out round of the Champions League, but there’s still the matter of finishing top of their group. Currently two points behind Juventus, Los Blancos can only ensure first place if they beat Zenit St Petersburg and Juventus lose at home to BATE Borisov.

It seems unlikely that the Italian giants will falter but on any other week, Bernd Schuster and his men would have gladly taken up the challenge to fight Juve for top spot. However, this isn’t any other week. This is the week leading up to their blockbuster battle with Barcelona in El Clasico… a clash that is more important than any other game on the calendar and one that will have ten times the significance for Madrid this weekend, considering their position in the Primera Division standings at present.

The dilemma for Schuster isn’t so much whether or not he should consider fielding a second-string team. The simple fact is that he does not have a weaker – or stronger – team to send out even if he wanted to. With the squad decimated by injuries, at least half of Schuster’s starting XI on Wednesday will have to be first team regulars, like it or not.

The real conundrum for the German-born trainer is whether or not he should order his troops to conserve their energy for the Barcelona game and limit their chances of picking up an injury by playing at half-pace against Zenit.

The risk in doing that is that with the Bernabeu die-hards already raging mad at their team following the 4-3 loss at home to Sevilla at the weekend, a less than committed performance and yet another defeat in their own backyard could send the fans over the edge.

But one has to ask if there’s even any advantage or any point in Madrid attempting to fight for top spot in the Champions League, especially after last season’s huge let-down when they qualified as group winners but still crashed out in the last 16 to a Roma side that they were expected to overcome.

Regardless of who they will end up facing come February 2009 in the first knock-out phase, Los Blancos will be better off taking care of the more pressing and dire issue at present, which is to avoid Barcelona opening up a double-digit gap at the summit of La Liga.

UPDATE: Bernd Schuster has since been sacked by Real Madrid. Juande Ramos has taken over with immediate effect and will be in charge of this game.

Out With A Whimper

Zenit have been largely disappointing in their maiden Champions League campaign. Even though Juventus and Real Madrid were always favourites to qualify from the group, last year’s UEFA Cup winners were expected to pose a more serious threat to the two continental giants and push them all the way, or even perhaps produce a shock.

But that never happened and they will now bow out of the competition with a whimper. They made a decent enough start to the tournament-proper when they only narrowly lost to Juve 1-0 and Madrid 2-1 in their opening two fixtures. However, it was the surprise 1-1 draw at home to Belarussian minnows, BATE Borisov in the following game that really dented their hopes of progression to the knock-out stage.

Despite their penchant for playing attractive football and the wealth of attacking talent in the team, Zenit have only managed to score four goals so far, often leaving their frustrated coach, Dick Advocaat, to lament his side’s ineffectual finishing in key matches.

As such, they will head into their final group match against Los Merengues with something to prove, especially considering that this will be their last Champions League game for a while. They have failed to qualify for next season’s competition after finishing fifth in the recently concluded Russian Premier League, although they will participate in the inaugural UEFA Europa League (UEFA Cup).

With their place in the last 32 of the UEFA Cup already confirmed, Advocaat will be hoping that his charges can play without any apprehension, pressure or reservations and allow their true attacking potential to show.


Real Madrid

Dec 07 Real Madrid 3-4 Sevilla (LA LIGA)

Nov 29 Getafe 3-1 Real Madrid (LA LIGA)

Nov 25 BATE Borisov 0-1 Real Madrid (CHAMPIONS LEAGUE)

Nov 22 Real Madrid 1-0 Recreativo Huelva (LA LIGA)

Nov 15 Real Valladolid 1-0 Real Madrid (LA LIGA)

Zenit St. Petersburg

Nov 25 Zenit 0-0 Juventus (CHAMPIONS LEAGUE)

Nov 22 Spartak Moscow 1-3 Zenit (ROSGOSSTRAKH)

Nov 16 Zenit 1-1 Dinamo Moscow (ROSGOSSTRAKH)

Nov 09 Amkar Perm 1-1 Zenit (ROSGOSSTRAKH)

Nov 05 BATE Borisov 0-2 Zenit (CHAMPIONS LEAGUE)


Real Madrid

Defensive midfielder Mahamadou Diarra is out of action for six to nine months after undergoing surgery to repair damaged ligaments in his right knee. Royston Drenthe looks likely to miss out after picking up a knock on his knee during Monday’s training session.

Miguel Torres, Pepe, Gabriel Heinze, Wesley Sneijder, Ruben de la Red and Ruud van Nistelrooy are all injured, while veterans Fabio Cannavaro and Raul could be rested. Marcelo and Arjen Robben, both of whom will be suspended against Barcelona, look certain to start.

Probable Starting XI (4-3-3): Casillas – Salgado, Sergio Ramos, Metzelder, Marcelo – Van der Vaart, Gago/Javi Garcia, Guti (c) – Higuain, Saviola/Bueno, Robben

Zenit St.

Defender Sebastien Puygrenier returns from suspension following his red card against BATE on Matchday 4. Captain Anatoliy Tymoschuk will miss his next game in European club competition should he pick up a yellow card in this match.

This will be the last competitive outing for 33-year-old Vladislav Radimov, who announced his retirement to take on the role of team director next year. Korean midfielder Lee Ho is the only player sidelined as he nurses a muscle injury.

Probable Starting XI (4-3-1-2): Malafeev – Anyukov, Puygrenier, Krizanac, Sirl – Denisov, Tymoschuk (c), Zyryanov – Danny – Pogrebnyak, Arshavin


Real Madrid

Alberto Bueno has already seen a decent handful of match-time so far this season. With some of the regulars expected to be rested, the 20-year-old could be given a chance to play the full 90 minutes and showcase his real talent. The Merengue faithful are crying out for a young hero from their own cantera to burst out onto the big stage to save their team in this desperate time of gloom, and this could be that one glorious evening for Bueno to shine.

Zenit St. Petersburg

This could very well be the last game Andrei Arshavin plays in the blue-and-white of Zenit. Desperate to leave Russia in January, this game at the Bernabeu will serve as his final audition as he looks to impress some of Europe’s superpowers, and he could not have chosen a better stage. Madrid themselves have shown interest in him in the past but their fascination has diminished recently. Now would be the perfect time for the 27-year-old to re-ignite their interest.


With their domestic campaign over, Zenit will need to field their strongest possible team in order to keep their key players in shape for the UEFA Cup knock-out round, which will only get underway next year.

Avoiding defeat will still be a priority for Madrid, but if the players already have their minds set on El Clasico, then playing for a draw would be the best result, as uncharacteristic as it sounds.

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