[UCL PREVIEW: Zenit St. Petersburg vs. Borussia Dortmund] This is not the manner by which many observers figured a beaten finalist in last year’s Champions League final would progress to this year’s knockout stage.
Only by scoring in the 87th minute of its group finale against Marseille did Borussia Dortmund squeeze into the round of 16, in which it plays at Zenit St. Petersburg Tuesday (live on Fox Sports 1, noon ET) in the first leg. Yet it still topped Group F ahead of Arsenal and Napoli and thus gets the second leg at home.
Though it lost, 3-0, to Hamburg in Bundesliga play Saturday, Borussia is back into a normal routine after the German winter break. Zenit is in the midst of a much longer break: it has not played a competitive game since finishing group play against Austria Vienna and has toured Qatar, Israel and Turkey to prepare for the Champions League series as well as the resumption of league action March 9.
“We've watched all Zenit's games,” Borussia Dortmund head coach Jurgen Klopp said, “including those at their training camp in Israel and in the group stage, particularly against Atletico Madrid and Porto. Ourselves and Zenit were in difficult groups -- I would consider Atletico to be a dark horse for the Champions League.”
Russian international Aleksandr Kerzhakov and Brazilian striker Hulk lead the Zenit attack. Each scored two goals in group play. Andrei Arshavin, a central figure in Russia’s impressive showing at Euro 2008 that earned him a contract with Arsenal, played in all six group matches without scoring. Zenit compiled just six points to advance out of group play; it last reached this stage two years ago and was eliminated by Benfica.
Zenit will be shorthanded for the first leg -- Roman Shirokov, Cristian Ansaldiand Danny will not play – but it does have Anatoliy Tymoshchuk, a member of the Bayern Munich squad who beat Borussia Dortmund in the Champions League final and faced it on three other occasions in league and cup play. After helping Zenit win the 2008 UEFA Cup he played four seasons for Bayern and returned to Russia last summer. His next Champions League appearance will be his 50th.
Tymoshchuk doesn’t take much stock in Borussia’s Bundesliga defeat. “That happens when a team is preparing for the Champions League,” he said. “In the Bundesliga everything is clear, Bayern can be called champions. Dortmund are also focused on the Champions League, so I would not be surprised if they specifically left something to spare before meeting us.”
He played down the effects of a long layoff from competitive play. “We worked so hard in training that we did not have time to shave,” said Tymoshchuk, who did indeed sport a beard at the team’s training session Monday. “Two training sessions a day. We are very well prepared, the sessions were well organized and the team worked on high-performance tasks set by the coaching staff. So we are ready for tomorrow's match.”
Centerback Mats Hummel has been battling heel and ankle injuries the past three months and may be available for Dortmund, but defender Neven Subotic and midfielder Jakub Baszczykowskiare out for the season with knee injuries. Midfielder Sven Bender suffered a groin injury against Hamburg and will miss at least two months, though Marco Reus can step into that spot.
Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang has struck six goals in his last seven games to take some of the scoring burden off Robert Lewandowski, who led the team with four goals in its six group matches and is tied for the Bundesliga lead in scoring with 14. Aubameyang, who hails from Gabon, is right behind him with 13.
Says Zenit head coach Luciano Spalletti, “Dortmund are a very strong team who last year played in the Champions League final -- that says a lot. The Champions League commands a lot of effort and attention and can affect the preceding game or the one that follows. We are working to keep pace and, in time, grow and improve. Behind us we have a big city and a huge number of fans who care about the club.”