Zenit boss Andre Villas-Boas urged his players to keep their Champions League tie against Benfica alive with a positive first-leg result in Portugal on Tuesday so that the outcome can be decided in favourable home conditions.
The Russian champions have not played a competitive game since their final group stage match in December due to the Premier League’s mid-season break, but training camps in Portugal and Qatar were arranged to prepare for the Benfica clash.
Zenit finished top of Group H after winning their first five matches to reach this stage and Villas-Boas is in confident mood ahead of the first leg, which sees him return to his home country.
Villas-Boas said: “Our greatest aspiration and our great desire is to take the game and the tie to St Petersburg, decide it there with a difficult environment like the Petrovsky [Stadium].
“The weather conditions are always decisive and always bother teams who play in Russia.
“Now we do extensive preparation for the match with Benfica, which is nevertheless an advantage because we have no other opponent to worry about.”
Recent history in meetings between the two sides is evenly matched. Benfica defeated Zenit 4-3 on aggregate at this stage of the 2011-12 tournament, while the teams also met in the Champions League group stages last season, with Villas-Boas’ men coming out on top in both fixtures.
Benfica finished second in Group C behind Atletico Madrid to reach the knockout stages, but Rui Vitoria’s side saw their recent eight-match winning streak in the Primeira Liga with a 2-1 home defeat to title rivals Porto on Friday.
Vitoria can call upon one of the top scorers in Europe, Jonas, who has hit 23 league goals already this season, while Konstantinos Mitroglou is also in form having netted eight goals in his last six league matches.
“If drawing would have been an unfair result for us, losing is even more unjust,” Vitoria said after the loss to Porto.
“We had numerous opportunities but we were not as effective as Porto. My players did enough to win the game. We did not win this game, but we are here to fight.”
Lisandro Lopez is expected to be available for Benfica after recovering from a thigh injury, but fellow defender Luisao remains out with a broken arm. Eduardo Salvio (knee) and Ljubomir Fejsa (thigh) will be checked ahead of kick-off.
Viktor Fayzulin’s knee injury keeps him out for Zenit, who added Yuri Zhirkov, Aleksandr Kokorin and Mauricio to their Champions League squad for the knock-out round. Following Tuesday’s meeting, the second leg will be played on March 9.
Key Opta Stats:
– This is the first time Benfica have reached the knockout stages of the Champions League since 2011/12. That season, they were eliminated by eventual winners Chelsea in the quarter-finals.
– Zenit have reached the knockout stages of the Champions League for the third time in the last five seasons (2011/12, 2013/14, 2015/16). However, they have never made it past the last 16.
– Zenit have won their last three away games against Portuguese clubs in European competition, qualifiers included.
– Raul Jimenez has scored two and assisted two of Benfica’s last four Champions League goals.