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Champions League PREVIEW: Zenit St. Petersburg vs AS Monaco (1/10/14)

Having sealed a 1-0 victory against an in-form Bayer Leverkusen side on the opening matchday, Monaco made the perfect start to their Champions League campaign. Since then, Leonardo Jardim’s men went on to make it three consecutive 1-0 wins at Montpellier and it seemed as though they were starting to erase the memories of a dismal start to the new season. However, a 1-0 home defeat to Nice at the weekend has once again left fans questioning their side’s progress and they face an even tougher challenge on Wednesday evening as they travel to Russia to face Zenit St Petersburg for the first time in their history.

Zenit started their Champions League campaign with a 2-0 win at Benfica thanks to early goals from striker Hulk and midfielder Axel Witsel and the Russian giants have a home record in European competition to rival any club. Prior to last season’s defeat to Borussia Dortmund, they had lost only three of 48 European games in the last 12 years at the Stadion Petrovski, winning 30 of them.

In the Russian Premier League, meanwhile, they have taken 25 points from their first nine games this season and already look set for an exciting battle with CSKA Moscow for top spot – a far cry from Monaco’s early-season struggles.

To make matters worse for Monaco, the Principality club have never claimed victory on Russian soil – losing twice and claiming one draw. Ultimately, they will be hoping that the return to European competition can once again galvanise their side and bring about a big performance that could go a long way to determining how far the club progresses in this year’s competition.

Squad Selection and Tactics

While Monaco have struggled to find the back of the net in recent weeks – failing to score more than once in any of their nine outings so far this season – a lack of viable alternatives means that there are likely to be few changes to Leonardo Jardim’s trusted 4-2-3-1 lineup. One change that could make the difference, however, is Geoffrey Kondogbia’s return to the base of the midfield. Kondogbia was on the bench at the weekend and his reintroduction would not only provide a strong presence in the middle of the park, but would also allow key man Joao Moutinho to move forward into the number 10 position and try to dictate proceedings from the front.

For Zenit, meanwhile, head coach Andre Villas-Boas will be sweating over the fitness of two key men as both Hulk and centre-back Ezequiel Garay are struggling with knocks. While both players are expected to be fit enough to feature, much will depend on how ready they are for the fast pace of European action. Elsewhere, Viktor Fayzulin will return at the base of the midfield after being ruled out of the Benfica clash through suspension and the side look set to match Monaco with a 4-2-3-1 system that boasts a plethora of attacking options.

Danger Men

Joao Moutinho (Monaco) – As mentioned above, the return of Kondogbia is likely to see Moutinho move forward into a more attacking, playmaker’s role and this could be key to his side’s chances. Moutinho’s goal against Leverkusen represents his only attacking contribution of note this season and, with his side struggling to put chances away so far this term, he will be hoping that the move forward will allow him ease his side’s attacking woes against Zenit.

Hulk (Zenit) – So much is always expected of 28-year-old Brazilian powerhouse Hulk and so far this season he has consistently delivered the goods. With six goals and five assists in 10 games, Hulk has been his side’s standout performer early in the campaign and, while question marks remain over his fitness for this match, if he hits his stride once again it could be a long night for Ricardo Carvalho and co.

Prediction

Monaco remain tough to predict this season after failing to find any real consistency so far. Everything suggested that they would struggle against Leverkusen yet they managed to pull off the win and then, just as they seemed to be gaining momentum, they faltered against Nice. Zenit, meanwhile, are much easier to predict with a near-perfect record so far and the fast, attacking Russian side should have too much firepower for Les Rouges et Blancs.

Prediction: Zenit St Petersburg 2-1 Monaco

J.L.

[PHOTO: D.R.]

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