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Champions League PREVIEW: Zenit vs Lyon (20/10/15)

Eric Devin previews Lyon’s must-win clash in Russia with Zenit this evening.

When the Champions’ League draw was made in Monaco some seven weeks ago, suffice it to say that most Lyon fans were overjoyed. The club, back in the competition proper after a handful of years in the wilderness, had avoided any of Europe’s true heavyweights, joining a Group H that contained a functional, if offensively limited Valencia, a Zenit St. Petersburg that was in tumult after a series of uneven domestic performances and haunted by the pending departure of former wunderkind manager Andre Villas-Boas. Belgian minnows Gent, a surprise titlist in last year’s Jupiler League, rounded out the group, but the thinking was, hubris aside, that Lyon should be able to advance from this group.

Thus far, things haven’t gone exactly to plan. The group stage opened with a trip to Ghent where Lyon were fortunate not to face an early deficit. Despite having a man sent off, amissed penalty from Alexandre Lacazette allowed the hosts to bank a well-deserved point, and things failed to improve on Matchday Two.

With Valencia visiting the Stade Gerland, Lyon put in a gutty performance, but failed to break through against a well-organized back line, Sofiane Feghouli’s goal enough to see the Spanish side notch three points. Domestically, things haven’t been much better, despite having one of Ligue 1’s better defensive records. After ten matches, the club sit sixth, near the top of a group of tightly-packed teams, with only a Nabil Fekir-led demolition of Caen a truly credible attacking performance.

Zenit have had somewhat of the opposite problem, then. Despite being forced to sell star striker Jose Salomon Rondon under new restrictions regarding foreign players, the club still has the second-best attack in Russia, but its defence is befitting more of a mid-table side than a title contender. Sloppy home losses to Krylia Sovetov and Krasnodar have left the club ten points off the pace, despite earning hard-fought road draws against leaders CSKA and Spartak.

Europe, then, has provided some respite for the club, as a surprising win at the Mestalla opened Zenit’s group stage campaign. Hulk netted a brace to lead the club into first place in the group, and that was followed by a nervy home win over Gent on Matchday Two. With a win over Lyon, Zenit would be leading the group by at least three points, with a head-to-head advantage over Valencia, meaning their qualification would be all but assured. With that in mind, the club rested the likes of Ezequiel Garay at the weekend, suffering a poor road draw against Kuban Krasnodar to give the team the best opportunity to clinch progress to the round of 16.

Team News And Tactics 

Lyon have been one of Ligue 1’s most injury-hit teams thus far, and this week failed to change any of that. Mapou Yanga-Mbiwa and Rafael did return from the training table this week, the latter notching a late equalizer against Monaco, but Aldo Kalulu, the young striker who had started against Valencia, took their place. With Henri Bedimo, Milan Bisevac, Nabil Fekir and Clement Grenier still long-term absences, Hubert Fournier remains short of options, especially in attack and defence.

With Bisevac absent, Yanga-Mbiwa will likely partner Samuel Umtiti in central defence, as Fournier is likely to name the same eleven from Friday. With Claudio Beauvue and Sergei Darder having come off at half-time on Friday, Les Gones will go with a back four of Christophe Jallet, Yanga-Mbiwa, Umtiti and Rafael, with Maxime Gonalons anchoring the midfield diamond. Darder, Mathieu Valbuena and Corentin Tolisso will complete the midfield, and Lacazette and Beauvue will once again start up top.

Zenit have a comparably shorter injury list, but right back Igor Smolnikov is a fairly big miss, as his replacement, Aleksandr Anyukov is a creaking 33 years old and may find himself tested by the pace of Rafael. Utility midfielder Viktor Faizulin is also set to miss the match, but was unlikely to have been included in Villas-Boas’ 4-2-3-1. While summer arrival Mikhail Kerzhakov has replaced Yuri Lodygin in goal of late, his having conceded twice against relegation-threatened Kuban Krasnodar on Saturday will hardly have inspired confidence in him.

Injuries and the recent change in goalkeepers aside, Villas-Boas’ lineup picks itself, despite a somewhat bizarre bit of experimentation at the weekend, with Anyukov being joined by the experienced center-back pairing of Ezequiel Garay and Luis Neto, Domenico Criscito on the left. In central midfield, Axel Witsel and Javi Garcia look set to start, while the attacking trio of Oleg Shatov, Danny and Hulk will line up behind summer signing Artyom Dzubya. Dzubya’s size (almost 2 meters) will make him the focal point of the offense, allowing the attacking midfielders space in which to attack.

Danger Men 

Mathieu Valbuena, Lyon

The subject of some rather unsavory rumours over the past week, and the object of a hail of debris at Marseille, it has been far from an easy first season at Lyon for Le Petit Velo. However, despite having failed to score and having only provided one assist, the diminutive French international has rarely been far from what little joy Lyon have had going forward.

If the visitors are to get the required three points, in addition to a fine defensive performance, it is likely that a moment of magic will be required; few, if any players in Ligue 1 are as capable of delivering on that as Valbuena. If the little man can conjure some sublime free kick or pin-point cross, (he nearly scored against Valencia) it could provide the spark to drive his side to victory.

Hulk, Zenit St. Petersburg

Maligned for club and country over the last few seasons, Hulk’s career since leaving the Lusophone confines of Porto has been somewhat star-crossed. At 29, his goal-scoring record has been somewhat uneven, and his physical bulk makes him somewhat of a liability in aiding his fullbacks in terms of tracking back, but the arrival of Dzubya has seen a new side to his playing style emerge.

Rather than playing the battering ram of days gone by, Hulk now delights in picking out Dzubya, the towering striker being not only a fine goal-scorer but also an ideal target  for second-chance balls. Having assisted on six of the club’s last seven goals, the bulky Brazilian has been a surprising catalyst for Zenit this season, and limiting his deliveries will be key if Lyon want a result.

Prediction 

Zenit 2-1 Lyon

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