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Champions League PREVIEW: AS Monaco vs Zenit (9/12/14)

Joseph Lambert bows out by previewing his final game for Get French Football News and a crucial encounter for Monaco’s future in Europe. We thank him for all that he has accomplished in the last 12 months with GFFN and wish him the very best for the future.

After sealing a vital, if slightly fortuitous, victory away at Bayer Leverkusen in the last round of fixtures, Monaco now find themselves odds-on to qualify from Group C as they welcome Zenit St Petersburg to the Stade Louis II in an exciting finale to the group stage.

That result sees Monaco sitting in second place with eight points from their five games, one point behind the German pacesetters and one ahead of their Russian opponents. Benfica sit bottom of the group on four points, meaning that Monaco will continue their European adventure win, lose or draw, with a Europa League place the consolation prize for a third-place finish.

Since their triumphant trip to Leverkusen, Monaco’s results in Ligue 1 have been in line with their inconsistent season so far as they lost 2-0 to Rennes before picking up two solid 2-0 wins over Lens and Toulouse, the latter thanks to a brace from Dimitar Berbatov who took his tally to three in two games and helped Monaco seal back-to-back victories for the first time since September.

Interestingly, Monaco have the chance to set a bizarre Champions League record in this game. Draw 0-0 and they will have qualified for the knockout rounds having scored just two group stage goals. Indeed, if Bayer Leverkusen also lose at Benfica, Leonardo Jardim’s men would win the group with their two strikes.

For Zenit, meanwhile, results have been largely pleasing since these two sides met on matchday two but, by their own lofty standards, the Russian outfit haven’t been at their peak in the Premier League. Having won 13 matches in a row in all competitions in August and September, Zenit have gone on to win five of their eight league games since that 0-0 draw with Monaco on 1 October and had the perfect preparation for this game at the weekend as they crushed third-placed Krasnodar 4-0 to go seven points clear at the top. The challenge for Andre Villa-Boas, however, remains to transfer their positive league form to European competition, where his side have been underwhelming so far and where failure to qualify from the group will be seen as a disappointing campaign.

Squad Selection and Tactics

Mounting injury problems in the Monaco defence make for an interesting sub-plot to this game as Jardim’s side could be hard-pressed to keep up their impressive form at the back. Ricardo Carvalho remains side-lined but would have been suspended regardless, Andrea Raggi is likely to miss out through illness and Layvin Kurzawa is still recovering from a hamstring injury as a number of running repairs at the back in recent weeks have even led to Jeremy Toulalan filling in at centre-back. In midfield, Geoffrey Kondogbia is also missing but Jardim can call upon a full complement of attacking options.

For their part, Zenit should have a full squad to choose from. Midfielder Alexander Kerzhakov has just returned to full training after a lengthy layoff but their strength in depth means that the side will not suffer too much. Indeed, while the Russian giants have rotated their squad well this season, there is always the same core present and they are likely to stick closely to the XI that started against Krasnodar on Saturday, where four goals came from four different players.

Tactically, there will likely be few changes from Villas-Boas’ favoured 4-2-3-1 system despite the must-win nature of the game for Zenit. Monaco have proven themselves to be adept at nullifying that shape throughout this season and they will hope that their opponent’s added urgency will leave spaces at the back for them to exploit.

Danger Men

Danijel Subasic (Monaco): While scoring goals has been a problem for Monaco all season, keeping them out has been their specialist area. Goalkeeper Subasic is in a rich vein of form at the moment and his skills will be tested to their fullest with a somewhat makeshift defence in front of him. If he can organise his troops, Monaco will get through.

Hulk (Zenit): While Hulk is not quite on top of his game right now, this is precisely the kind of match that the Brazilian powerhouse is expected to star in. After scoring seven goals in August, Hulk has managed just four in 17 outings since and will be desperate to justify his superstar status here. He remains his side’s top scorer and top provider this season with eight goals and six assists but progress in Europe’s elite competition will mean so much more than those mid-season accolades.

Prediction

If this Champions League campaign has taught us one thing it is that Monaco will be tough to beat. Zenit will be anxious to claim victory but a failure to adapt their shape could well see them come up short. Monaco’s makeshift defence will undoubtedly be in for a stern test but Berbatov’s recent upturn in form up front should be enough to compensate.

Prediction: Monaco 1-1 Zenit St Petersburg

J.L.

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