Writer: Gavin Kelley-Day
Date:Wednesday February 13 2013
Liverpool have flown out for their Europa League tie with Zenit St Petersburg but sadly the match is being overshadowed by non-football related issues...
Ahead of Thursday's Europa League last 32 first leg clash with Russian side Zenit St Petersburg, Liverpool FC have openly expressed concerns over abuse potentially being directed towards their players.
A recent Zenit supporters' manifesto called for gay and non-white players to be excluded from the team and Reds managing director Ian Ayre revealed he had written to Uefa expressing worry.
"It's been a major concern for us, so I wrote to UEFA very recently expressing our concerns to them - and also to Zenit themselves," explained Ayre to Liverpoolfc.com yesterday.
"We await some responses in that regard. The most we can do is make our feelings clear ahead of the game, and hope that we get an adequate response and adequate support on the night. That's about the most we can do at this stage.
"I'm certainly hopeful that the right people will take the right action to ensure it's a game where we don't have that type of incident."
Sadly concerns about racism, in particular, are on the increase with a series of incidents around Europe. In one of the most high-profile examples Kevin-Prince Boateng lead his AC Milan teammates from the field following racist abuse from supporters in a match in Italy last month.
The England U21 side were also on the receiving end late last year during a European Under-21 Championship qulifier in Serbia. On that occasion the reaction of the English players to the racist chanting sparked a mass brawl amongst the two teams at the final whistle.
Football played in England is also seemingly not immune with a Sky Sports investigation, broadcast this week, featuring a number of incidents of chanting at grounds around the country.
Amidst the backdrop, Piara Powar, executive director of Football Against Racism in Europe (FARE), fears there could be further trouble in Liverpool's upcoming game.
"I think for any black player, and I say this reluctantly, but particularly players of darker skin, who are easily identified as being of African heritage, they should be very cautious," said Piara to BBC Sport earlier today.
"Without wanting to pre-empt problems I certainly think this is one of those games that has the potential for tension, the fact that Liverpool have three or four prominent black players who will be vulnerable playing on the wings, and quite close to the crowd."
On the field, Brendan Rodgers has promised to take a strong squad after utilising earlier rounds to give the team's youngsters a chance to gain experience of continental football.
With no other silverware to play for and the competition now in the knockout stages, Rodgers told the official club website: "I want to go in as strong as we can. I think we're on the down slope now - we've only got 12 games in the league and hopefully we can progress in the Europa League. We'll be looking to go strong."
Two men who won't be involved however are January signings Daniel Sturridge and Philippe Coutinho. The duo are ineligible after featuring in Europe previously this season for former clubs Chelsea and Inter Milan.
Zenit, who are the current back-to-back champions of Russia, will provide a stern test for the Merseysiders after dropping out of this season's Champions League.
Luciano Spalletti's side have invested heavily in players of late with the big money signings of Brazilian striker Hulk and Belgian midfielder Axel Witsel particularly noticeable (both cost in excess if £30m).
Perhaps crucially, Zenit haven't played a competitive game since early December due to the Russian league's current winter break. The side have instead spent time in Dubai and Turkey but Rodgers has revealed the lack of recent action has not effected scouting of the opposition.
"They've played some games since [going on the break]," said the manager. "We had them watched in their training camp when they went away, so it hasn't stopped us doing our homework and analysis of the opponent...
"They might not be up to total match speed because they don't actually play their next competitive game until March, but they've certainly got some top players there that will provide a real test for us."
Another factor to consider will be the conditions in St Petersburg with temperatures expected to plunge well below freezing and the Petrovsky Stadium pitch likely to bare the scars of the harsh Russian winter.
Russia is an up and coming football power with a number of the countries' top sides investing heavily in big-name players via a combination of powerful benefactors and oil money. Liverpool have already faced Anzhi Makhachkala this season and Zenit are likely to provide an even sterner test but with nothing else to play for it is a given that Rodgers and the players will now be treating the Europa League with an even greater level of importance. Although it is difficult to predict the exact line-up, especially given the weekend league match against Swansea City and our recent spell of three games in seven days, it will no doubt be a strong one. Whoever plays, hopefully we can keep the game tight and sneak an away goal. Vital Liverpool predicts a 1-1 draw.
Reina, Johnson, Skrtel, Carragher, Enrique, Lucas, Allen, Gerrard, Downing, Suarez, Borini, Jones, Wisdom, Agger, Coates, Henderson, Coady, Shelvey, Suso, Sterling.
Possible Starting X1
Reina, Wisdom, Skrtel, Agger, Johnson, Allen, Henderson, Gerrard, Sterling, Downing, Suarez.
Did You Know?
Zenit St Petersburg were originally formed in 1925 but have gone through a number of name changes which often reflected the turbulent history of the city itself, formerly known as Petrograd and Leningrad.
The fixture between Zenit and Liverpool is live in the UK on ITV4 on Thursday 14th February (kick-off 5.00pm)
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Date:Wednesday February 13 2013
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