Inside the Game: Benfica vs Zenit Champions League Preview


Lisbon on Tuesday plays host to an enticing first round match between Euro giants SL Benfica and FC Zenit St. Petersburg in Group C Champions League action. PortugalFutbol.net has combined forces with our Russian counterparts at RussianFootballNews.com to provide you with a comprehensive preview of this clash of titans.

Benfica Red & White Preview

SL Benfica comes into this Champions League Group C clash in Lisbon with Russian powerhouse Zenit on a high, having just crushed Vitoria Setubal 5-0 Away on Friday in the Primeira Liga. This is the best start to a season for the Aguias in over a decade, yet the lead-up to the season had the club in turmoil. Luis Felipe Vieira the President of the Liga Champion Reds was under great scrutiny from both fans and media alike.

Questions of financial crisis, player transfers, and competitiveness were rightly posed to the Big Red leader. It left a bad taste in the mouth of most Benfica fans to start the campaign. On paper the loss of Garay, Oblak, Cardozo, Markovic, Rodrigo, Siqueira, Gomes, Cavaleiro, and Cancelo had dampened prospects for the Europa League Finalists, especially with the potential of possibly also losing lynchpins Enzo Perez and Nico Gaitan to late buyouts. Many in the Red corner were fuming including Manager Jorge Jesus who said even though his name was Jesus he couldn’t create miracles and that the talent pool was thin. Fortunately for Benfica fans Jesus is often wrong, the only impact from the transfers were the loss of Garay and Cardozo.

Benfica and JJ are notorious at starting the season poorly and it has resulted in early exits from the Champions League in the last couple of seasons. In part it comes down to the constant flow of transfers at The Luz to start a campaign, but mainly the squad selections early in a season are often littered with Jesus’ favourites and not necessarily the best performing squad. The likes of Coentrao, Cardozo, and Matic in recent years have come from JJ’s outhouse to the team penthouse.

Of the Trio of the Portuguese Champions League contingent Benfica has the hardest route to navigate with Bayer Leverkusen, Monaco, and joint favourites Zenit St. Petersburg challenging their progress early in the season. To make matters worse Zenit is already deeper into their schedule having played 7 Russian League games, going undefeated in that time. Zenit also already has had 4 competitive Champions League matches to warm them up, having defeated both AEL Limassol and Panathinaikos to reach the group stage.

On paper the Mega Million Euro Zenit squad would be hands down favourites but fortunately football is not played on paper. Benfica’s European pedigree is not questioned having gone deep in European tournaments 3 of the last 4 seasons, which has them ranked 5th overall in Europe by UEFA. Benfica’s ability to create mega stars is in evidence in this match with the likes of Garay, Witsel, and Javi Garcia strengthening their opponents Zenit, all a product of the Big Red Machine.

The current Benfica squad also contains some of the most sought after players in Europe with Gaitan, Luisao, and Perez in high demand from top clubs. Jose Mourinho on the weekend professed his love of 3 goal maestro Talisca in newspaper headlines, with Jesus saying Talisca was soon to be SLB’s next mega million Euro sale.

Jesus unquestionably is known for his ability to get his team to attack in numbers with his formations in recent years almost resembling a 2-2-6 at times. That will change somewhat with the loss of Cardozo and Rodrigo, as well as the recent acquisition of Striker Jonas from Valencia who is unable to play in the Champions League.

Benfica’s goals this season have come from attacking Forwards namely Gaitan, Salvio, and Talisca who plays as an Attacking Midfielder/Sub Striker. Lima as a lone Striker has yet to bulge the twine and although he is a workhorse that drops back to help in midfield his positioning in the box is lacking, unlike his recently departed partner Cardozo who was impeccable in the great area.

So how will Big Red line-up against Zenit?

Benfica-Starting-Line-up

Jesus will most likely counter Zenit’s formation with a 4-2-3-1.

Lining Maxi Pereira, Luisao, Jardel, and Eliseu in defense;

Recent Greek signing Samaris will pair with World Cup Finalist Enzo Perez in the heart of the midfield;

Gaitan, Talisca, and Salvio will be the Forwards in attack with Lima being the lone Striker for the high flying Eagles.

The loss of Garay who covered so well for the mass Benfica attack could be exposed in this clash of titans, as the back four combined aren’t as mobile as they were in past campaigns, add that to Zenit’s super speed attack it generates concerns in the face of the Benfica goal, especially when many followers of the red and white have big game concerns for Goalkeeper Artur (who dropped the only points of the season with his colossal Frango against city rivals Sporting). To a man the back four is solid but there are speed concerns versus Zenit.

On paper the midfield battle is where the game should be won, and some would think this fight favours the Blue, White and Sky Blues of St. Petersburg but actually this is where Benfica should wrestle control of the match. Victor Faizulin is out through suspension, leaving Witsel and Javi Garcia to battle Samaris and Perez.

Enzo took over for Witsel after he departed in a big money buyout to Zenit, and he like Matic who replaced Javi took the position to another level, never looking back. Enzo’s vision, ball winning and feistiness in midfield will be matched by Samaris who was Greece’s best player in this summer’s international Samba Bowl. This star studded World Cup midfield will create headaches for many, and will give Javi Garcia who isn’t the fleetest of foot fits all night, especially with Talisca just behind him looking to pounce.

The forward attack will match Zenit’s strength going forward, with both Zenit’s Fullbacks being more one way player’s consistent pressure will be maintained in attack with the Red & White Argentinian Wingers in full flight.

Gaitan is capable of some magical work on any given night. If on his game, Nico is on the cusp of the elite of European football, it is whether he chooses to be creator or taker the major difference. When Gaitan is a creator he is a maestro that can break any of the elite defences in the Champions League, in contrast when he is a taker he resembles more Ricardo Quaresma with his infuriating upper deck shooting, and selfishness in face of goal. His bread and butter is feeding Salvio at the back post for a timely goal.

Talisca is the wild card the 20 year old had a successful pre-season entering the Luz as a highly touted Brazilian prospect, but some fans questioned his inclusion early in the season before his 3 goal outburst versus Setubal. His consistency will be key as the talent is definitely there. If Talisca can get on the score sheet versus Zenit it will be the difference maker in the Champions League prospects of Benfica, as the Striker role is the team’s biggest weakness.

Another potential conundrum leading up to the game at the Luz is what will be Jesus’ starting line-up as he has been known to make some puzzling squad selections and tactical changes on the eve of a big game. Logically we can make suggestions based on trends but usually all bets are off with JJ on BIG game day.

Soccerway’s most popular predictions for score line are:

15.4% Benfica win 2-1

12.3% Zenit win 2-1

10.8% Benfica win 3-1

Orlando Mac Game Prediction:

Benfica win with a 2 -1 victory at home to Zenit with Fayzulin suspended, and both Garay as well as Hulk questionable for the match with nagging injuries.


 

Zenit Blue, White & Baby Blue Preview

Andre Villas Boas said he wanted to be like Peter the Great, the Tsar who looked to Europe, when he first arrived at the Blue, White and Sky Blues. With his new recruits coming from the continent then let’s see if he really can revolutionise Zenit into a European powerhouse just as Peter the Great succeeded in doing so with the club’s home city of St. Petersburg.

Zenit will be looking to continue their terrific start to the season when they take on Benfica on Tuesday night and will look to fare better than they have in recent Champions League campaigns. It is felt that, despite winning the then UEFA Cup in 2008, Zenit have failed to reach the heights in European football that people expected of them at that time. However, with many new, world class players arriving at the Petrovsky Stadium, this season could certainly be the one in which to make their mark.

To get to the group stage Zenit have had to come through a tough tie with Standard Liege, who had finished top of the Belgian league, only to be beaten in a title play off last season. Standard also had to beat Panathinaikos in order to reach the play-off match with Zenit. This was a much harder task than when Zenit faced AEL Limassol although they did lose the first leg away in Cyprus. This was their only loss so far this season and Zenit then convincingly beat AEL Limassol back in St. Petersburg.

The current Zenit side has many connections with the Portuguese league and Benfica. Axel Witsel, Ezequiel Garay and Javi Garcia have all played for Benfica and all of them under their current manager Jorge Jesus; therefore they should know how Jesus will set up the Lisbon side. Furthermore, the Portuguese contingent of Danny and Neto at Zenit means that they too should be able to understand how Benfica might approach this match.

So how will the Blue, White and Sky Blues line up? Andre Villas Boas has set up with a 4-2-3-1 formation this season and there is no real reason to change this. So far this season they have won all seven games in the Russian Premier League. Additionally, in the Champions League, there is no limit to the number foreign players on the pitch as there is in the Russian Premier League so AVB will have more options to choose from.
Zenit’s defence is looking particularly strong since the arrival of ex-Benfica man Ezequiel Garay and, with him in the side, they have only conceded two goals in the league all season – both coming in the win against Dynamo Moscow at the weekend. Both he and Nicolas Lombaerts have certainly formed a solid partnership this season at centre half.

In midfield, Zenit also look very intimidating opponents, particularly with Javi Garcia, Axel Witsel and Victor Faizulin patrolling the middle. Witsel has recently expressed his delight at being set free by AVB and so is being allowed to concentrate on the attacking side of his game. Playing this fixture means the Belgian international will have played against both of his former teams in this Champions League campaign. Witsel did come off at half time in the victory against Dynamo so it will be interesting to see whether he is fit enough for the game against Benfica, although Villas Boas did not seem too alarmed when asked about it in his press conference. This strong midfield trio will be without Faizulin who is suspended for the game against Benfica, so it will be interesting to see how Villas Boas will deal with his absence.

Zenit also look very strong in attacking areas particularly with Danny in top form so far this season and we even saw Arshavin who, despite not starting a match since April, had a great game against the Muscovites at the weekend. Andre Villas Boas played him in a free role and he excelled as Dynamo’s defenders could not mark him without being pulled out of their defensive shape. I believe his performance in this victory could really propel the former Russian captain back into the manager’s thoughts.

Zenit are arguably strongest on the counter attack with their pace in forward positions which allows them to turn defence into attack within seconds. It will be interesting to see who starts against Benfica in the lone striker role. Soloman Rondon has been on good form this season, scoring four goals in six games, and Kerzhakov has just become the record national goal scorer for Russia so, despite seemingly losing his place at the Petrovsky this season, he will be brimming with confidence. Against Dynamo, Hulk started up front but was largely ineffective in this position. He has been suffering with a hamstring problem but AVB has said this won’t keep him out of this Tuesday’s Champions League tie. Therefore I imagine Rondon will start against Benfica with Hulk reverting back to his usual slot on the wing.

So what are Zenit’s weak points?

Fullbacks Criscito and Smolnikov play with a very attacking mentality and are often found stretching opposition defences around the opponent’s penalty area. However, this of course does leave space behind which is open for the opposition to attack, especially if the midfield doesn’t cover. Generally, these two full backs do not stop crosses coming into the box – arguably the most important part of a fullback’s game. If Benfica exploit this weakness then Zenit could be in trouble. This weakness has not been tested much this season because Zenit have generally played against weaker teams. However, I doubt this will be the case in Portugal and the full backs will have to remain disciplined.

Zenit are generally an average Champions League team, as is the case with most Russian clubs, and their recent record is poor. They struggled out of an average group last year with a mere six points which was the lowest successful tally in Champions League history. In the last two seasons, Zenit have lost their first two away games in the Champions League and in the 2011/2012 season they actually lost to Benfica in the round of sixteen. All these factors do not bode well.

My prediction at the line-up:

Zenit Predicted Lineup - Benfica vs Zenit

Tom Giles Game Prediction:

Result wise I think Zenit would snap your hand off if you offered them a draw right now. I think it will be tight and will go for 1-1.
Inside the Numbers


 

Head to Head Record:

1-1 with Benfica advantage on goal difference 4-3

Benfica Record versus other Russian Clubs:
4 Wins 2 Draws

Zenit Record versus other Portuguese Clubs:
4 Wins 2 Draws

Last 5 Games:

Benfica – 4 wins 1 Draw, outscoring opponents 10-1.
Zenit – 5 wins 0 Draws, outscoring opponents 10-2.

Benfica are unbeaten at home in 51 matches.
Benfica swept all domestic trophies in 2014.
Benfica is undefeated so far this season only conceding one goal in that time.

Zenit is on a 10 match winning streak with 7 clean sheets.
Zenit has won two rounds of games to qualify for the Champions League Group Stage.
Zenit’s Hulk has scored 7 goals in 10 appearances.

Benfica’s Talisca is coming off a 3 goal game.


 

Hot or Not

Hot:

Benfica Undefeated Start
Zenit Undefeated Start
Benfica Players: Talisca, Gaitan, Enzo, Luisao
Zenit Players: Hulk, Danny, Garay, Witsel
Benfica’s Home Record in all competitions (51 straight without a loss)

Not:

Fayzulin out with suspension for Zenit.
Artur has potential for a big game gaffe in goal.
Lima is not scoring.
Zenit’s defensive liabilities at Fullback.
Benfica’s past couple years of Champions League play.
Zenit’s past couple years of Champions League play.


 

In the end a very tight match and it will take a game breaker to decide this contest for either side. Both Managers are highly acclaimed and thrive in attacking formations, so a high scoring game maybe on the cards. Definitely one of the great first round match-ups that should not be missed.


 

Thanks to Orlando Mac (@OrlandoMaxxx) from PortugalFutbol.net and Tom Giles from RussianFootballNews.com.

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