Perhaps Zenit head coach Luciano Spalletti sees blood in the water – the flotsam from a Borussia Dortmund season that’s failed to live up to expectations. Maybe the former Roma boss, entering his fourth year in St. Petersburg, is pressing for the breakthrough many believe he would have brought by now, or perhaps he sees the power of Brazilian attacker Hulk, the midfield craft of Belgian Axel Witsel, and the technical persuasion of Portugal’s Danny as a core that can make history. Regardless, the man who took the Rossoneri to the bring to Serie A greatness in Italy is talking a big game ahead of tomorrow’s UEFA Champions League Round of 16 match against last year’s runners-up.
“The Zenit management are very ambitious people,” Spalletti conceded in the lead up to Tuesday’s game, the opener of the clubs’ two-game, knockout round series. The club spent $119 million in fees to buy Hulk and Witsel from Portuguese clubs in Sept. 2012. “[Management sets] high goals and we strive to meet them. I’ve told my players we have a rare opportunity to not just write a chapter in our history, but to put the title on the cover story of Zenit.”
And for a club that has spent prodigiously to transcend the Russian league — to join Paris Saint-Germain, Manchester City, and Dortmund emerging European powers — history is the goal. With Tuesday’s early game, Zenit see an opportunity to take advantage of an injured and struggling opponent to make their second trip to the competition’s knockout rounds a successful one.
Against a team that went to last year’s final, Spalletti’s language would normally ring of a delusional naiveté but with Borussia Dortmund still embattled by some of the injuries that have derailed its season, Zenit have a chance. The absences of captain Jakub Blasczcykowski, starting central defender Neven Subotic, midfield focal point Ilkay Güdongen, and versatile pivotman Sven Bender have contributed to Dortmund’s fall to third in the Bundesliga, the team coming off a 3-0 loss this weekend at relegation-embattled Hamburg.
“There’s an old saying that a good horse only jumps as high as he has to,” Klopp said after the Hamburg loss. “I think a horse should jump as high as it can. We looked at how high we had to jump today and, when we realized that it wasn’t so high, we had already fallen behind.”
Zenit presents a similar danger. While they’re far more talented than Hamburg, the Russians also represent a reprieve from some of the other knockout round matchups BVB could have been drawn. Whereas fellow group winner Barcelona got drawn against Manchester City and another Bundesliga power, Bayern Munich, is paired with Arsenal (a team Dortmund couldn’t meet in this round), Klopp’s club will face a side that’s failed to translate their buying power into European success. Even without at least four starters, Dortmund is favored in this matchup.
[MORE: UEFA Champions League Preview: Talent not the issue for Manchester United against Olympiacos]
Mats Hummels may be back, the German international defender recovering from a heel problem that’s kept him for the last three weeks. Marco Reus has recovered from his injury, with Pierre Emerick-Abumenyang and his 13 league goals set to start in Blasczcykowski’s place. With Nuri Sahin, one of Dortmund’s most influential players, regaining the presence he had during his first spell with the club, BVB’s talent base is close to what they took into last May’s final. Sitting 20 points behind Bayern Munich in the Bundesliga, perhaps the results have not been as good, but in terms of actual potential, this team is as capable as the one that challenge München at Wembley.
Particularly with Danny missing from leg one, Zenit will be pressed to keep up, but between Hulk, Witsel, the newly purchased Salomon Rondon, and a slew of talents that played a significant part in Russia’s qualification for the 2014 World Cup, Spelletti’s team has enough to do some damage in Tuesday’s first leg. Ultimately, however, between two attack heavy teams who’ll need to out-shoot their adversaries if they’re to claim a spot in the quarterfinals, two legs give the likes of Reus, Abumenyang, Henrikh Mkhitaryan, and Robert Lewandowski time to over power Zenit …
Even if that may not happen in leg one.