Zenit v Benfica preview: Visitors defending 1-0 lead in Champions League last-16
By Reuters Sport
Last Updated: 09/03/16 5:07pm
Benfica will field a makeshift rearguard when they travel to Russia to defend a 1-0 Champions League last-16 lead at Zenit St Petersburg on Wednesday.
The Portuguese side are missing three central defenders plus goalkeeper Julio Cesar for the second leg at the Petrovskiy Stadium.
Benfica defenders Luisao and Lisandro Lopez are injured and Jardel is suspended leaving Victor Lindelof, who started the season as a reserve, as the only recognised central defender in the squad.
Right full-back Andre Almeida is also banned while Cesar will be replaced by fellow Brazilian Ederson because of a thigh injury.
Benfica have a record of one win, two draws and four defeats from their seven visits to Russia with their only victory coming 20 years ago in a 3-2 win over Lokomotiv Moscow in the now-defunct European Cup Winners' Cup.
Coach Rui Vitoria, however, is buoyed by Saturday's 1-0 triumph at Sporting that sent his side to the top of the Portuguese league ahead of their neighbours.
"It's always better to work from the base of a win," he said.
Benfica have notched 13 victories in 14 matches this year with only a league defeat against arch-rivals Porto interrupting the sequence.
Vitoria has no worries in attack where striker Jonas has scored 28 goals in 35 games in all competitions and is enjoying the best season of his career at the age of 31.
Zenit boss Andre Villas-Boas, who faced Benfica seven times as coach of Portuguese rivals Academica Coimbra and Porto, said the supporters could lift his side to victory and a first-ever quarter-final place.
"We have the advantage going into the return leg, by this I mean our supporters," said the former Chelsea and Tottenham Hotspur boss.
"I am sure the stadium will be packed and they will create an atmosphere which will help the team to a new level.
"We are sure we can overcome the deficit," added the Portuguese. "Reaching the quarter-finals of the Champions League is our dream and this could be a very important event for Russian football."
Zenit are in the knockout stages of the Champions League for the third time in the last five seasons (2011/12, 2013/14, 2015/16), but they have never made it past the last-16. Benfica have reached the knockout stages of the Champions League for the first time since 2011/12.
Benfica and Zenit's only previous encounter in the knockout stages of the Champions League saw the Portuguese club progress, it was in the last-16 of the tournament back in 2011/12 (4-3 on aggregate).
Zenit have won all three of their home games in the Champions League this season (7 goals for, 2 against).
Benfica have lost four of their five away games in the Champions League knockout stages (W1).
Zenit and Benfica have picked up the most cards in the Champions League this season: 24 and 23 respectively. The first-leg produced six yellow cards and a red card.
Zenit's Artem Dzyuba has scored/assisted 61.5 per cent of his team's goals in the Champions League this season (8 out of 13).
Hulk's next Champions League game will be his 50th in the competition. He has scored three goals and delivered four assists in six games this season.
Zenit are 11/10 favourites to win on the night but 7/4 outsiders to make the quarter-finals as they look to overcome a slender deficit, with Benfica 13/5 to cruise through with a win and 23/10 to hold out for a draw.
The Russian outfit are also longer odds in the outright at 100/1 but the Soccer Saturday pundits are all backing them to progress in their Sky Bet tips, including Charlie Nicholas' 50/1 fancy for Hulk to score first in a 3-1 victory.
The Brazilian heads the first goalscorer betting at 4/1 with first-leg hero Jonas considered the visitors' main threat at 11/2 to break the deadlock.