Ahead of their Champions League Round of 16 encounter, can Borussia Dortmund put their indifferent domestic form behind them and escape freezing St. Petersburg or will Zenit heap more problems on the Black and Yellows?
At this time last year, Dortmund had already left a significant mark on Europe. The then Bundesliga Champions had breezed through a tough group – finishing ahead of Real Madrid in the process – and would eventually finish as runners-up to their domestic rivals Bayern Munich. A year on and the picture isn’t as rosy as Dortmund’s erratic form would put the Indian monsoon to shame. Although much better in Europe, manager Jurgen Klopp has had to dig deep into his resources to extradite his team from what was this season’s Group of Death.
Dortmund’s manic Geggenpressing has finally taken its toll by leaving a side decimated by injuries. A mounting casualty list includes defensive lynchpin Nevan Subotic – ruled out for the rest of the season – while midfielders Ilkay Gundogan, Jakub Błaszczykowski and Sven Bender face lengthy layoffs and definitely won’t be taking part in the tie against the Russians.
Despite his resources being severely stretched, Klopp welcomed back Marco Reus on the weekend and will hope that defender Mats Hummels’ heel has recovered sufficiently from a heel injury. In his pre-match conference, the German chose to concentrate on his opponents rather than his team’s predicaments.
Klopp said: “We’ve watched all Zenit’s games, including those at their training camp in Israel and in the group stage, particularly against Atlético Madrid and Porto. Ourselves and Zenit were in difficult groups – I would consider Atlético to be a dark horse for the Champions League.”
He went on to add: “It is not important which country has the strongest league. Maybe it’s Spain, England or Germany, so second place is quite an honour. As for Russian football, it is progressing and Zenit are in the quarter-finals for the second time.”
Despite the German club being in a prime position to be picked off, Zenit come into the tie having not played competitive football since December. Unlike other leagues, the Russian league is played from March to November meaning any Russian side that qualify for the knockout stages of the Champions League face the unenviable task of keeping players fit and match sharp during the break. Zenit’s winter friendlies have already taken a toll on some of their key players as right back Chrsitian Ansaldi and playmaker Danny were injured against BATE Borisov and in all probability miss Tuesday’s match. Russian midfielder Roman Shirikov will also be out due to a hell injury.
One of the key factors in deciding the tie in the Russian’s favour will come down to how well Hulk and Axel Witsel play. The Brazilian will play out on the right and will use every opportunity to cut inside and use his lethal left foot while Witsel’s task will be to protect the backline especially against Dortmund’s quick counter-attacks. The Russian side will also look to expose Dortmund’s lack of options in central midfield as Sven Bender’s injury on the weekend robbed Klopp of a steely presence. Bender’s replacement will most likely be Sebastian Kehl but at 34, the German is hardly a force to be reckoned with and will rely on experience rather than legs to get by in difficult conditions.
In the pre-match press-conference, Zenit boss Luciano Spaletti highlighted what an amazing opportunity lies ahead for the Russian side.
The Italian said : “The Zenit management are very ambitious people. They set high goals and we strive to meet them. I’ve told my players we have a rare opportunity to not just write a chapter in our history, but to put the title on the cover story of Zenit.”