In September, Inter Milan and Rubin Kazan squared off to open the Europa League group stage. Inter was still in rough form at that point, and it took a stoppage time goal from Yuto Nagatomo to save the nerazzuri a point.
Inter's form has dramatically improved since then. They've embarked on a red-hot streak under coach Andrea Stramaccioni, and they even ended the 49-game unbeaten run of Serie A champions Juventus on their way to second place in the league. They've also won the three Europa League games that followed the opener at the San Siro.
Kazan has also enjoyed a strong season since the opening match against Inter. They currently sit in fourth place in the Russian Premier League, and like Inter have won their last three matches in the Europa League. The two teams are both already through to Round of 32, but come into the match level on points, with Inter in first position thanks to a one-goal advantage on goal difference.
Thursday's match will likely determine which team will go through as the top seed out of Group H. Let's take a look at five key matchups that could decide the outcome.
Summer import Rodrigo Palacio has been the top scorer for Inter in the Europa League, scoring five times and leading Inter to the next round of Europe's second-tier competition. He's also been a key in the league, scoring five more times and becoming, along with Antonio Cassano, the effective strike partner that countryman Diego Milito has lacked since Massimo Moratti's ill-advised sale of Samuel Eto'o two summers ago.
Tasked with slowing Palacio and the rest of the Inter attack down is a Kazan defense led by center-back Cesar Navas. The team's vice captain, he has worn the armband for the Russian outfit the last three games in the Europa League, and Rubin Kazan hasn't allowed a goal in the competition since they faced the Italian giants in September.
Navas' defensive line will be of utmost importance for Kazan, as their offense has been slipping up the last two matches in the competition against Azerbaijani side Neftchi Baku—both matches were close-fought 1-0 victories.
If Rubin Kazan wants to move ahead of Inter in the group, they must contain the dynamic attacking trident that Stramaccioni has developed over the course of the season. Inter, conversely, must break down one of the best defenses in the competition.
Along with rejuvenated youngster Andrea Ranocchia, the Brazilian youngster has helped the Inter defense improve dramatically from it's form last year, when it allowed 55 goals in Serie A and scuttled any hopes it had of making the Champions League.
While Ranocchia hasn't played much in the Europa League, Juan has started all four of his team's games, as has Venezuelan forward Jose Salomon Rondon for Rubin Kazan.
Rondon has scored five times this season for Kazan, four times in the RPL and once in the Europa League—an 84th minute strike against Inter that gave the Russians a short-lived lead.
Kazan has had problems scoring in their last two matches in the competition against Neftci. In their first matchup at home, the Tartars took 15 shots but only found the target three times. In the return leg, they actually found the target more often than they missed it (eight shots on goal to six off) but were still only able to score once.
Rondon and his fellow forwards are going to have to step up their game against the revamped Inter defense, which has given up only 19 goals this season in all competitions.
One of the few solid regulars that has played every match in the Europa League this year for Inter is goalkeeper Samir Handanovic. It's not a coincidence that his arrival from Udinese this summer has coincided with an improved back line and overall defensive effort this year from the Milan giants.
Handanovic has spent the last few years at Udinese establishing himself as one of the best goalkeepers in the Serie A, and after last season, Inter wasted little time in snapping him up from the Friuli outfit. So enamored were the nerazzurri, that they gave Handanovic the No. 1 shirt even before they transferred aging incumbent Julio Cesar to QPR. His experience in playing behind a three-man defensive line at Udinese has helped ease Stramaccioni's transition to the 3-4-3 formation that has keyed Inter's recent hot streak.
Handanovic's opposite number, Russian international Ryzhikov, is even more of a key player for his team. He's likely to see a number of attempts from Palacio & Co. at the front of the Inter attack. While Stramaccioni has thrown a lot of players on in the Europa League that normally ride the bench on weekends in Italy, he's shown that he's not averse to giving Diego Milito and Antonio Cassano a run on Thursday nights.
In a big game that will absolutely determine which team gets the seed coming out of the group, it isn't a stretch to think that at least one of Inter's main forwards will be on the field. If that's the case, Ryzhikov is going to have to be on form to keep Kazan in the match.
Inter's vice-captain is another who has played all four group matches for Inter and has captained them on two occasions when the ageless Javier Zanetti has been rested. The Argentinian will have to hold down the midfield on Thursday against the 26-year-old Russian international Ryazantsev, who has proved to be quite the goal-scoring threat in the midfield.
The Russian international scored eight times in 46 games in all competitions last year and has already found pay dirt twice this season in the Europa League. With Kazan's strikers misfiring the last few games in Europe, Kurban Berdyev will be looking for goals from anywhere, and his young midfielder is a prime target.
Long one of the outstanding defensive midfielders in Italy, Cambiasso will be tasked with bottling Ryazantsev up and forcing the Russian side's out-of-form strikers to beat Handanovic.