Zenit vs. Liverpool: 5 Players for the Reds to Watch for in Europa League
Liverpool's UEFA Europa League campaign resumes on Thursday as they make the long and arduous trip to East to Russia, for their Round of 32 first-leg fixture against Zenit St. Petersburg.
The Reds might have been hoping for a rather more favourable route through the next two rounds after coming out on top of the group stage, but it looks like they will have to do things the hard way after being drawn against Zenit first of all, with the winners likely to have to play Dnipro Dnipropetrovsk in the next round.
Forgetting a possible tie with the Ukrainian side, Zenit will provide stern opposition for the Reds to find safe passage from this stage of the tournament.
With the game coming just three days after the West Brom league game, and only another three days before Liverpool play Swansea at home, it is unlikely that too many senior first-choice players will be asked to make the long journey for the Europa League match.
It could therefore be a case of the senior fringe players and a number of youngsters being asked to repel a strong Zenit side with a number of key players.
Here are five of the most important players that Liverpool will have to watch out for.
The superstar, the main man, the expensive shiny new signing—that's how it was supposed to go after Zenit splashed out a massive £32 million fee for Brazilian forward Hulk.
Instead, what it led to was some unhappy members of the playing staff criticising the huge wages Hulk was on, and then some sections of the Zenit fans demanding an all-white team, amongst other things.
Hulk has yet to find his best form over in Russia, where he still plays from the right side of the attack for the most part but has also been deployed centrally and on the opposite flank.
So far he has netted twice in the Premier League, from nine games. But he cost a vast sum for a reason; Liverpool cannot let him have too much time on the ball, or space outside the area, where he can really hurt teams.
Any team's top goal-scorer should be counted as a threat, and Zenit's is no different.
Aleksandr Kerzhakov has hit 10 league goals so far this season in 15 games, more than double any of his teammates.
The Russian striker has a long-standing affinity with Europe's second tournament across its various guises, scoring a total of 19 goals in 33 games down the years.
Good movement, an early shot and being fairly useful in the air are all key attributes that Kerzhakov brings to Zenit.
One of the players affected by the arrival of Hulk, Vladimir Bystrov has found game time harder to come by from the start but remains an important part of the Zenit squad.
His tenacity and quality on the ball on the right flank make him an important asset when Zenit try to press high up the field, while he also has good delivery from wide areas.
Though he has only started once since the beginning of November he remains a danger to the Reds either from the starting XI or off the bench. Bystrov has claimed five assists this season, the joint-highest in the squad, and over the two legs he can pose Liverpool problems from the right.
Zenit's captain following the argument which broke out in the team due to Hulk's arrival and salary, Danny has spent much of this season recuperating from the long-term injury sustained to his knee last year.
He has only managed to play nine games in all competitions so far, but his presence in the team from November onwards indicates he is ready to become a key man for Zenit once more. He scored two goals in his three Champions League matches, and has laid on two assists for his team mates in domestic league play.
Danny is skillful, athletic, has good vision and excellent technique and will be a real danger for Liverpool to deal with.
The final spot could have gone to either Igor Denisov or Axel Witsel, both of whom are important components in the Zenit engine room, but Witsel has the strength and power in midfield which has troubled Liverpool at times this season.
Former captain Denisov's passing and control of the midfield is impressive, but Witsel will break forward a little more often and has very good spacial awareness on the field, which if Liverpool take a shadow midfield lineup to Russia could cause big problems.
Witsel scored twice in a game against Spartak Moscow recently, his only goals for Zenit so far, and will be a player to watch out for in the fixture. If the Reds keep him quiet and off the ball, they could dominate the play as they like to.
If the Belgian is allowed time to run the tempo of the game, it might be a very long evening indeed for the Reds.