This week, four Russian football clubs, Zenit, CSKA, Lokomotiv and Rubin, are to play their first matches in the group stages of the UEFA Champions League and UEFA Europa League.
Zenit’s defender Bruno Alves (left) and forward Danko Lazovich (right)
Just like last year, four domestic clubs out of six have been able to reach the group stage, and, just like last year, there was one sensational and humiliating defeat: Spartak Moscow was knocked out by the usually unimpressive Polish club Legia Warsaw thanks to a late goal in a second-leg home game in which Spartak blew a two-goal lead.
The other domestic teams have good chances of progressing to the play-off stage of the European tournaments.
In the Champions League, Zenit is playing an away game on Tuesday against Cypriot club APOEL, probably the easiest opponent in the group. The biggest challenges for the St. Petersburg side are likely to be matches against Portugal’s FC Porto, the most recent winner of the Europa League. Incidentally, Porto knocked off Spartak and CSKA on its way to the trophy last season.
Meanwhile, Zenit’s main competitor for the qualifying second place in the group is likely to be Shakhtar Donetsk, Ukraine’s strongest team of the last few seasons. According to Anatoly Timoshchuk, a midfielder of Bayern Munich, who used to play for both Shakhtar and Zenit, the chances of the two teams are roughly equal.
“I believe that the teams are equal in terms of lineups and potential,” Timoshchuk was quoted in Sport Express. “The decisive factor in the ties will be not the players’ level but their attitude and ability to fight on the pitch.”
Rubin’s defender Salvatore Bocchetti (top) and Krasnodar’s Andrei Mikheyev
For its first Champions League game this season, CSKA is visiting Lille on Wednesday. The French side is likely to be their main competitor for the second place in the group, while Inter Milan likely to finish in the top slot. Matches against the group’s fourth team, Turkey’s Trabzonspor are not going to be a cakewalk, but the Turks’ unimpressive European record so far is a major factor against them.
CSKA’s major problems ahead of the Champions League games are the injuries suffered by key players, goalkeeper Igor Akinfeyev and Japan’s national team’s midfielder Keisuke Honda. The performance of the squad in this autumn’s games is likely to heavily depend on the ability of the coach Leonid Slutski to find adequate replacements for the two injured stars.
Lokomotiv and Rubin, which are competing in the Europa League, are playing their games on Thursday. Rubin is visiting Ireland’s Shamrock Rovers. The Kazan club’s other opponents in the group are England’s Tottenham Hotspurs and the Greek squad PAOK. While the English side is considered to be the group’s most dangerous opponents, Rubin has good chances against both the Irish and the Greek clubs.
Loko is also playing its first game away, against Austria’s Sturm. And although the squad is still in the process of finding its game under new coach José Couceiro, the Austrian club, just like two other teams in the group, Belgium’s Anderlecht and Greece’s AEK, should not present too many problems for the Muscovites.
Read other articles of the print issue “The Moscow News #70”