Cyprus Mail
Champions League

Winter hibernation not a problem for Zenit

Benfica face former rival Andre Villas-Boas and his Zenit St Petersburg team

Zenit St Petersburg will be playing their first competitive game for two months when they visit Benfica on Tuesday but are confident Russian football’s winter hibernation could be a help rather than a hindrance.

The Champions League last 16 first leg at the Stadium of Light will also be something of a reunion for Benfica, who face three of their former players, plus an old rival in visiting coach Andre Villas-Boas.

Russian champions Zenit, lying a modest sixth this season, have not played since they lost 2-1 to Ghent in their final group stage outing on Dec. 9 and have spent the winter break in Qatar, Portugal and Spain.

“The long winter break is not a problem,” said their Portuguese coach Villas-Boas, who has faced Benfica three times in charge of Academica Coimbra and four-times with their arch-rivals Porto.

“We had enough games during our training camps. We made sure that we would approach the Benfica match in the best possible physical shape.

“We have prepared extensively for the Benfica match, and that is something of an advantage because we haven’t had any other opponents to worry about.”

The two sides also met at the same stage of the competition four years ago when Benfica won the second leg 2-0 for a 4-3 aggregate win, the last time the 1961 and 1962 European Cup winners reached the quarter-finals.

Axel Witsel was inspirational for Benfica in that match and clearly impressed Zenit as they splurged 40 million euros to buy him from their opponents at the end of that season.

Zenit midfielder Javi Garcia and defender Ezequiel Garay each spent three seasons at Benfica earlier in their careers.

Argentina defender Garay moved directly between the clubs in 2014 while Spaniard Garcia arrived at Zenit via Manchester City.

The trio have already faced their old club before, helping Zenit, who have never gone beyond the round of 16, complete a double over Benfica in the group stage of the 2014/15 competition.

Benfica, three points behind leaders Sporting in the Portuguese league, won 11 games in a row in all competitions before losing to arch-rivals Porto on Friday.

“We want to bounce back but it’s a different competition,” said Ruiz Vitoria, who has had a topsy-turvy time in his first season as Benfica coach.

“These players are proud and believe in what they are doing. We will be here again on Tuesday with the intention of winning.”

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