Two clubs who have made patchy starts to the season meet on Wednesday as Zenit Saint-Petersburg host AC Milan at the Petrovsky Stadium in the Champions League (5pm BST, Wednesday, October 3).
Zenit went down to a limp 3-0 defeat to Malaga in their opening group stage match, while AC Milan were held to an uninspiring 0-0 draw at home to Anderlecht. In the Russian league Zenit have won just one in six.
In Italy, Milan have faired little better, winning just twice in the same timeframe.
Money is at the root of both clubs’ recent travails. Expensive new signings have adversely affected a once-settled Zenit dressing room, while the departure of two key players to the nouveau riche Paris Saint-Germain has left Milan weaker in both defence and attack.
The early September big-money signings of Belgian midfielder Alex Witsel from Benfica and Brazilian forward Hulk from FC Porto were supposed to herald Zenit’s arrival as genuine contenders on the European stage, adding quality to a squad that had won back-to-back domestic titles and reached the final sixteen of last year’s Champions League.
Instead, their appearance has precipitated a poor run of form. Hulk has scored once in one defeat and two draws in domestic action and was ineffective in Zenit’s collapse away to Malaga. Injuries have limited Witsel to just one match since joining the club – a defeat to Terek Grozny.
Worse still, the monetary incentives offered to these new recruits has created discord in a previously harmonious squad.
Influential midfielder Igor Denisov is currently training with the youth team after demanding an increased salary in line with those of Hulk and Witsel. Striker Aleksandr Kerzhakov had joined him there but was restored to the first team squad at the weekend.
Worse still, a home-made bomb, sans explosives, was discovered at the Zenit training ground this week. Beside it was a picture of Hulk that on its reverse said: “There is no Hulk.”
Such events are hardly the ideal preparation for a match that Zenit could really do with winning in order to jolt their season back into action. At their best, the Russian club play some superb, quick attacking football, with a rotating midfield three and excellent movement in forward areas.
They had won four from four, scoring 12 and conceding just once before their recent problems and the club’s Italian coach Luciano Spaletti will be hoping for a return to form on Wednesday.
The Milan side Zenit will face bears little resemblance to that which won the 2010/11 Serie A title and finished second last season. This summer saw the clear out of a number of ageing familiar faces, players who had become synonymous with the club. Alessandro Nesta, Clarence Seedorf, Filippo Inzaghi and Gennaro Gattuso all departed. So too did Dida and Mark van Bommel.
More damagingly, classy Brazilian defender Thiago Silva and formidable striker Zlatan Ibrahimovic, the club’s two best players, left for Paris in a €63 million double deal. Silva had been the glue that held the club’s defence together. Ibrahimovic was a prolific scorer and producer of moments of magic that often made the difference between one point and three.
Milan have lacked inspiration so far this season, failing to score in three of their seven matches to date, although there was some signs of hope in a end-to-end 1-1 draw with Parma at the weekend. The front-three of Bojan, Kevin Prince Boateng and emerging talent Stephen El Shaarawy had plenty of pace and energy, and created a number of good chances.
El Shaarawy scored Milan’s goal, his third in two matches. The 19-year old is still very raw, but has confidence and speed in abundance, attributes that could serve the Italians well on the counter-attack if he is deployed from the start in Saint-Petersburg.
While Milan displayed more incision in forward areas, there will be concern over the number of often uncontested long-range efforts they allowed their opponents. If they concede similar space to Hulk – possessor of an incredibly powerful shot – then they could find themselves in trouble.
The Brazilian will be desperate to make an impact to prove his worth to both the club’s supporters and his teammates. He scored four times in six matches for Porto in last season’s Champions League and will surely have opportunities to open his 2012/13 account against Milan.
Zenit vs AC Milan Betting Tips Verdict
Zenit have not been in the best of form recently, but know they need a positive result from this match to get their Champions League campaign up and running. They have the talent to trouble a weakened, inexperienced Milan team and are certainly capable of getting all three points.