Zenit St. Petersburg vs. Borussia Dortmund, 2014 UEFA Champions League draw: A trip to Russia for BVB
Borussia Dortmund will face potentially difficult opposition in Zenit St. Petersburg in the first knockout round of the UEFA Champions League.
Nobody likes an away trip to Russia, but that's exactly what Borussia Dortmund have been dealt in drawing Zenit St. Petersburg in the Champions League.
Dortmund don't have any hope of winning the Bundesliga, but they can't ignore league form completely - a combination of poor form and injuries have left them well adrift of the summit. Nonetheless, with their best chances of major silverware this year now actually being the Champions League, Jurgen Klopp will surely prioritise the competition. His side will be favourites to progress here, but Zenit can provide serious danger.
Zenit St. Petersburg
Zenit are strange. They stunned the world with their double-Portugal swoop for Hulk and Axel Witsel in September 2012, but have rarely been in the news since, exiting the Champions League last last season with a third place finish in the group stage, being knocked out by Basel in the Europa League and finishing second in the league - considering the scale of their investment, that was quite a disappointing return.
By October this year, things had been looking up - they were well clear on top domestically, and progressing with ease through European competition, but one win in seven and a 4-1 shellacking at the hands of Austria Wien (albeit having already qualified) have raised serious concerns about Luciano Spalleti's side. Indeed, qualifying with just six points - a record low for the competition, and something that would irk Rafa Benitez's Napoli, who exited with 12 - doesn't offer much promise for the knockout stage, although Zenit, as always, have both the benefit and curse of Russia's winter break. On one hand, it gives them the chance to refresh and start anew, on the other, it deprives them of match practice.
Spalleti will be grateful, though, for the opportunity to rethink his approach. The long-term injury to Danny has increased the goal-scoring reliance on Hulk, but the Brazilian remains inconsistent with his efficiency in the final third, and squandered more shots than any other player in the Champions League group stage. However, with a blend of 'marquee' signings and a solid Russian core, Zenit should at least provide a challenge to their opponents in the Round of 16.
Key player: Axel Witsel
A powerful, domineering all-round central midfielder who took a step down in his career when moving from Benfica to Zenit, but still remains one of the most exciting players on the planet. The recent murmurings that he might consider a move to Chelsea or Manchester United - and in both cases, he'd be a giddily suitable fit - would be more befitting of his talent, something which has unfortunately going missed by the vast majority of football fans who don't keep up with the Russian Premier League. If Zenit are to survive a likely matchup with one of the top tier European sides, Witsel will be key.
Last year's Champions League finalists scraped into the knockouts courtesy of a late Kevin Grosskeutz goal against Marseille, but given the length of time between the two stages, it's difficult to see how much of an impact this will have on the German side's hopes of progression - and you'd have to think things won't be so calamitous in terms of injuries by February, considering Dortmund have been without their first choice back four for the best part of the past three weeks.
Germany's break over the winter will also give some respite to a side that hasn't quite hit the heights they soared last season in European competition, struggling to match Bayern Munich's astronomical progress under Jupp Heynckes and now Pep Guardiola. So the theory goes, all great teams have a three year cycle and on that basis Jurgen Klopp's side are past their date, but this remains a youthful, attacking team with players who, on their day, can match the very best. Their high-tempo counter-attacks are like lightning strikes, and it feels like this is a side better suited to playing on the break than last season, now that Mario Gotze has been replaced by Henrik Mkhitarayan, whose ability to provide creativity against deep-lying defences remains in doubt.
In that sense, Dortmund will probably benefit in a game where they won't be charged with dominating possession, but rather sitting back and hitting opponents through the pace and agility of Marco Reus and Pierre Emerick-Aubameyang down the flanks.
Key Player: Ilkay Gundogan
There are lots of key players for Dortmund, but Gundogan is one of their more reliable, solid performers in his central midfield berth - his absence in the first half of the season has been sorely felt. Obviously, he's defensively capable for the duties of the double pivot, but his real strengths lie in his passing and ability to transition the ball from deep positions into dangerous, attacking zones. Nuri Sahin is a reasonable replacement but lacks Gundogan's incisiveness, and it's even been touted he'll be pushed into the no.10 role when he returns, to provide the creativity that it's been suggested Mkhitarayan lacks.
Key Matchup: Axel Witsel vs. Ilkay Gundogan
With both teams having their key players in the same area of the pitch, it's going to be a straight-up fight between the two for control of the centre of the park. Both are very complete midfielders who do a bit of everything and lots of running, and they'll need to be fiercely competitive to seize the initiative for their side in midfield.
There are other intriguing matchups here, like how a potentially makeshift Dortmund defence will cope with Hulk, but it's probably in midfield where this tie will be settled.
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