12pm ET, live in the US on Fox Soccer Plus
Group Stage matches:
Liverpool: 1-0 Udinese (a); 2-2 BSC Young Boys (h); 0-1 Anzhi (a); 1-0 Anzhi (h); 2-3 Udinese (h); 5-3 BSC Young Boys (a)
Zenit: 1-0 Milan (a); 2-2 Malaga (h); 0-1 Anderlecht (a); 1-0 Anderlecht (h); 2-3 MIlan (a); 0-3 Malaga (a) [Champions League]
Last three matches:
Liverpool: 0-2 West Brom (h); 2-2 City (a); 2-2 Arsenal (a)
Zenit: 1-1 Anzhi (h); 1-0 Milan (a); 4-2 Spartak (a)
Liverpool: Shelvey 4; Downing, Suarez 2; Borini, Coates, Cole, Gerrard, Henderson, Johnson, Wisdom 1
Zenit: Danny 2; Faizulin, Hulk, Kerzhakov, Shirokov 1
Referee: Carlos Velasco Carballo (ESP)
Guess at a line-up:
Wisdom Skrtel Carragher Enrique
Sterling Henderson Borini
Rodgers has named a strong squad, but will he name a strong XI?
With both their previous clubs still involved in this competition, Sturridge and Coutinho are ineligible. And I'd have to think that no matter how strong a side Rodgers would like, Gerrard, Agger, and Johnson – at the very least – will be left on the bench. Those three, more than any others, need to be protected, as we've been reminded all season long. It's dangerous to leave those two defenders out – Zenit's Danny would be the best player Wisdom has faced this season, while Agger remains Liverpool's best center-back, no matter those last ten minutes against West Brom. But the number of matches (and importance of those matches) this week demands some sacrifices on the altar of fitness.
However, both Lucas and Suarez may well start, something that didn't happen often in the group stages (at least in the case of Suarez; Lucas was injured), the latter more likely than the former. Liverpool's attacking options remain limited without Sturridge, as Monday's match so painfully proved, pretty much requiring the Uruguayan on from the beginning. And I suspect Suarez will be joined by Borini and Sterling. Downing's played in every match since being left on the bench against Southampton on December 1, 14 in a row, starting all of them except the FA Cup tie at Oldham; even Suarez and Gerrard haven't featured as often over that stretch.
Meanwhile, Liverpool will need Lucas' defensive capabilities in midfield, protection against Danny and Hulk's runs inside, Kerzhakov dropping deep from striker, and Zenit's fluid midfield three. He'll assuredly be joined by Allen, who's been overshadowed by Liverpool's other midfielders, and most likely Henderson. Zenit's shape – specifically that three-man midfield – suggests it'd be a bad idea to play Suarez as a #10, and Henderson will provide more and better running and work rate than either Shelvey or Suso.
Finally, tomorrow is a homecoming of sorts for Martin Skrtel, bought from Zenit in January 2008. If any opponent is likely to encourage a revitalization of form, it should be tomorrow's. He'll probably be joined in defense by Carragher, who's shown the ability to play twice in a matter of days when starting against both Arsenal and City, rather than Agger or Coates, as well as Enrique, who – like Suarez – pretty much has to start because of the paucity of alternatives. I still think Wisdom's more likely at right back because of Johnson's fitness concerns, but if any of Gerrard, Agger, or Johnson is to start, it's probably the right back because of the aforementioned problems that Danny causes.
Zenit are currently third in the Russian Premier League, three points behind Anzhi – a side Liverpool are both familiar with and were, honestly, better than in the Europa League – and five points behind CSKA Moscow. The Russian league went on winter break in mid-December, but Zenit have played a handful of friendlies over the last month, against Al-Hilal (W), Zamalak (L), Shakhtar Donestk (L), RNK Split (W), Gornik Zabrze (W), and BATE Borisov (L).
Zonal Marking's preview explains Zenit's tactics better than I'm able. Luciano Spalletti's side is flexible, but the Italian prefers a fairly orthodox, counter-attacking 4-3-3, quite similar to how Russia played in Euro 2012. Hulk and Danny playing off Kerhakov; Witsel and Shirokov ahead of the deeper-lying Denisov; and Anyukov, Bruno Alves, Lombaerts, and Hubočan in defense, with both fullbacks aiming to get forward, Anyukov more than Hubočan (who can play anywhere along the back four). Zenit's keeper, Vyacheslav Malafeev, was Russia's first-choice keeper until retiring from the national team after Euro 2012. New signing Neto, another Portuguese international, may replace Lombaerts in defense, while midfielder Zyryanov and full-back Criscito will be crucial absentees through injury. That'd be Spalletti's strongest available side, which I have to assume he'll deploy.
That Zenit thrive on the counter-attack presents a major concern for this Liverpool. We've all seen the side, no matter the personnel, rent asunder by lightning, fluid breaks. For once, tepid Liverpool possession without overcommitting players forward and without high pressing when losing the ball – facets we've often complained about – might be the best strategy. Patience and caginess will be the orders of the day.
Meanwhile, James Appell's preview for ITV, detailing Zenit's on- and off-the-pitch struggles makes me slightly more optimistic. The off-the-pitch struggles have been heavily noted: the fans group who demanded that Zenit not sign minorities or homosexuals; homegrown players such as Denisov, Kerzhakov, and Shirkov reacting poorly to the massive fees and contracts for Hulk and Witsel; and the ongoing, delayed construction of a new stadium, one which will probably end up the world's most expensive.
On the pitch, Zenit started the season slowly, knocked off balance by the eye-watering purchases of Hulk and Witsel, especially disappointing in the Champions League when failing to qualify from a group with AC Milan, Malaga, and Anderlecht. However, they've lost just once in the league since mid-September, a 3-0 defeat at Dinamo Moscow by forfeit when Dinamo's keeper was injured by a firecracker thrown from the Zenit fans, with 53 subsequently arrested. Once again, off-the-pitch issues dwarf those on it.
Also on the pitch, it'll be about -5º celsius, otherwise known as about 23ºF in civilized countries. Which is pretty damn cold, and something that Zenit will be used to that Liverpool won't, no matter how bad the weather's been in Britain or that Zenit's spent the majority of its winter break in U.A.E. and Turkey.
Liverpool's frustrating, disappointing performance against West Brom should at least provoke a response from this side; there have been some very bad matches this season, but they've almost always been followed by a good one, as after Villa, Stoke, Oldham over the last couple of months. Liverpool will need a very good one to beat the Russian champions in Russia in February, even considering the season they've had so far or their form going into the fixture.