Liverpool boss Brendan Rodgers has said that he will field a strong lineup as the Reds try to keep alive their last remaining hope of a trophy this season when they travel to St Petersburg for the first leg of their Europa League last-32 tie with Zenit.
Steven Gerrard and Luis Suarez are both with the squad in Russia, with January signings Daniel Sturridge and Philippe Coutinho the only players ruled out. The pair are cup-tied due to their European participation with Chelsea and Internazionale, respectively, earlier in the season.
Liverpool come into the match on the back of a hugely disappointing 2-0 home defeat to West Brom on Monday that all-but ends their hopes for a top-four spot and Champions League qualification for next season.
With that in mind, the Europa League may well take on extra priority for Rodgers.
“It's a competition we want to do well in—it's the last cup competition we're involved in,” the Liverpool boss said, according to the club’s official website. “We'll have a strong squad and team playing tomorrow night. We know the opponents are the Russian champions and a very strong team, but we want to progress in the tournament.”
Liverpool’s opponents Zenit will be playing their first competitive match since December 10 last year, when the Russian Premier League went on its winter break.
It is a scenario that the Russian champions have gotten use to over the years, however, and coach Luciano Spalletti has played down fears that his players will lack of match fitness.
"We have done all the necessary preparation, on the training ground and in friendly games, and my players look fine,” the Italian said, according to UEFA’s website. “We are used to playing at this time of the year."
The buildup to the match has sadly been tarred with fears of racist abuse being directed at Liverpool’s black players from some Zenit fans. In December one of the club’s fan groups wrote a manifesto as an open letter to the club suggesting that Zenit should preserve the traditions of the club and thereby restrict black players and those who represent sexual minorities.
Rodgers said that he would speak to his players, but was hopeful that any situation would be dealt with by the relevant authorities.
“I will make reference to it because we have players that maybe it could affect, but we're here for football,” he said. “We're very hopeful it'll be a terrific game of football and anything that goes on outside off the field can be taken care of.”
Zenit St Petersburg
D: Anyukov, Alves, Lombaerts, Hubocan
M: Witsel, Denisov, Shirokov
F: Hulk, Kerzhakov, Danny
D: Johnson, Skrtel, Agger, Enrique
M: Henderson, Allen
F: Sterling, Suarez, Borini
Prediction: Having spent vast sums last summer, Zenit would have been disappointed to fairly limp out of the Champions League group stages. The signing of Hulk in particular seemed to disrupt the side of anything and his performances have not yet justified his sizable fee. There will be much intrigue to see of Spalletti has been able to build more team cohesion during the winter break.
Liverpool have been handicapped in their preparations by some less than helpful Premier League scheduling for TV that means they will be playing less than 72 hours after their defeat to West Brom. Without Sturridge and with Gerrard potentially been left on the bench, the Reds may struggle against a Zenit team that has plenty of talent.
Zenit St Petersburg 2-1 Liverpool
Where to watch: The first leg of the Europa League last-32 tie will kick-off from Stadion Petrovski at noon ET. Coverage will be provided by Fox Soccer Plus, with a live stream available via a free trial at Fox Soccer 2Go.
Sports reporter, mainly focusing on my native sport of soccer, but also dabbling in some tennis and Formula One.