In a group that was expected to vault Milan and Zenit to the knockout round, Málaga has established themselves as the frontrunner. While their upcoming games with Milan may provide a wakeup call, Málaga’s more likely to leave the two favorites fighting for a single spot. One of Milan or Zenit could be relegated to Europa.
Over the next two rounds, Zenit will make their case for second place. Facing a home-and-road series against Anderlecht, the Russian champions have an opportunity to put space between themselves and Milan. By the time the favorites meet again on matchday five, Zenit may be able to play for a draw at the San Siro.
To earn that luxury, Zenit must win now.
Zenit (Russia) vs. Anderlecht (Belgium)
Petrovsky Stadium, St. Petersburg, 12:00 p.m. Eastern
It should go without saying that Zenit needs to turn their Champions League around. The Russian champions may have taken a second strike when they last at home on matchday two. Now, one-third of the way through their group stage mini-season, Zenit sit bottom of Group C without a win or a point.
To get back on track, head coach Luciano Spalletti wants four-to-six points from their upcoming games, but with closing matches against Málaga and Milan, the Russian champions probably need the six. The hole they’ve dug is that deep.
If Zenit play to their capabilities, six is an attainable goal. To do so, they’ll likely need Hulk and Axel Witsel – their high-profile, early September purchases – to perform closer to their potential. Although the duo has struggled since being brought in from Portugal last month, they’re starting to make a bigger contribution. Back-to-back games against Anderlecht may be the perfect combination of stakes and opponent to get them fully integrated.
For Anderlecht, the issue is goal scoring. The Belgians have yet to score in this year’s competition and will be without DR Congo international Dieudonné Mbokani, who has a team-leading six goals in eight league games. Their next-leading scorer, Serbian Milan Jovanovic, returns from suspension, giving Anderlecht a replacement weapon to use against the group’s worst defense.
From Zenit head coach Luciano Spalletti:
“We have endured a difficult period but the situation is gradually improving. I am starting to see a positive future again.”
From Anderlecht head coach John van den Brom:
“We have to play as one harmonious unit and play well. We can take some inspiration from our 0-0 draw at AC Milan [on matchday one] – that was a huge game, but it is in the past now and this next match will be different.”
Málaga (Spain) vs. Milan (Italy)
La Roselada, Málaga, 2:45 p.m. Eastern
It’s a make-or-break match for Max Allegri. At least, it feels like it, though every game does. Such is life when a team like Milan sits 15th in their league.
It looked like the door would finally hit Allegri on Saturday when the Rossoneri went down 3-0 at Lazio within 49 minutes. Two late goals made the final respectable and may have saved his job. Still, it’s unclear who would be in line to replace Allegri, should he go. It’s also unclear whether Milan is willing to pay somebody not to coach.
In Champions League, Milan’s form’s been much better, collecting four points through two rounds thanks to an matchday two upset in St. Petersburg. Málaga, however, is a whole new challenge, not just in terms of quality but also form. They may end up being the best team Milan plays all season.
As with the Saturday trip to Rome, there’ll be no shame if Milan lose at the Roselada. At some point, however, Allegri must show progress. He has to show he can get results from this diminished but still talented team. A draw in Spain would be an excellent start.
From Málaga head coach Manuel Pellegrini:
“Underestimating Milan would be a big mistake. Pato and Stephan El Shaarawy are dangerous forwards …”
From Milan head coach Massimiliano Allegri:
” It makes no sense to talk about the Milan of the past – we’ve changed 14 players so this is a different team … The most important thing is to keep looking forward. A while back, people said I was the best coach in the world and now they say I am the worst – same with the players. We have to keep working and resolve the current situation.”