DAVID SMITH - Thursday, March 17, 2011
Oguchi Onyewu and Twente will look to avoid a collapse against Zenit while a scoreless deadlock at the midway point means Maurie Edu and Rangers must be careful at Ibrox in their second-leg Europa League games.
Zenit St. Petersburg - FC Twente Enschede (agg. 0-3)
Oguchi Onyewu and Twente will hope that another cold afternoon in Russia in their second-leg against Zenit will yield a similar winning result like their last journey east.
Twente head into the return leg at Zenit's Petrovski Stadium carrying a three-goal aggregate lead and need simply to avoid anything but a glorious collapse to reach the quarterfinals of the Europa League.
Thursday's game will bring back icy memories of their first trip eastwards exactly one month before, where they similarly faced biting sub-freezing temperatures on their visit to Moscow to face Rubin Kazan in the first leg of their round of 16 game.
While temperatures on the field are "only" expected to reach down to 15 degrees Fahrenheit this time around, Michel Preud'homme will hope to see his squad earn a similar outcome as the last, which saw them with a 2-0 win at the end of 90 minutes.
Onyewu has spent much of his time at Twente since his January arrival subbing in at left back, however the emergence of Bart Buysse at the position as of late along with the suspension of Douglas assures that the American will take the field at his natural center back position.
Zenit suffered what has been a curse amongst Russian teams in European knockout round in the first leg in Enschede, looking entirely overpowered as a team still in the final stages of their pre-season and now facing a huge deficit to overcome.
Coach Luciano Spalletti's squad did manage to squeak by in their Russian Premier League opener during the weekend, taking a 1-0 road win against Terek Grosny, but will need a considerably stronger performance on the attacking end along with stout performance in the back to have any hope of going through.
Spalletti will be without a number of players for the game. Defenders Tomas Hubocan and Nicolas Lombaerts are out with respective back and knee problems, while the midfield duo of Sergei Semak and Vladimir Bystrov with foot and knee issues. In addition, forwards Aleksandr Kerzhakov and Aleksandr Bukharov will both be on the roster but are not expected to be able to play the full game in the biting cold.
Twente find themselves with a legitimate shot at a trio of trophies for the season, already having a late-May final date against Ajax in the Dutch Cup, trailing PSV Eindhoven by a single point in the league standings, and looking headed for the final eight in this competition.
Fortunately the injury bug has been on their side, with forward Bryan Ruiz being the only notable absence from the squad which traveled to St. Petersburg.
Glasgow Rangers - PSV Eindhoven (agg. 0-0)
Maurice Edu should get the nod in Rangers central midfield on Thursday evening when they look to squeeze by PSV Eindhoven with all things knotted at zero at the midway point.
Neither team was able to muster any magic in the first leg, leaving matters still at a standstill headed into the final 90 minutes. While this does mean that any outright win in Glasgow for Rangers will see them through, they must be careful to avoid leaking any away goals to their Dutch visitors or they could find themselves facing an uphill battle.
With PSV boasting a deadly attack which is by far the top scoring team in the Dutch Eredivisie, having netted 71 times through 27 games, this means they will have to tread carefully on the defensive side while hoping to nick one on the counter or via a set piece situation.
Fortunately for Rangers, this defines precisely what has become their oft-criticized gameplan in European games. Smith is almost certain to once again roll out a back-heavy 4-5-1 formation, which will undoubtedly assure that even the most stricken insomniacs can finally get at least 90 minutes of sleep, but has admittedly worked well enough to put his team within reach of the quarterfinals.
Another scoreless deadlock at the end of 90 will allow spectators to hit the snooze button for another 30 minutes, however a scored draw will put the Dutch team through.
PSV are currently sitting first in domestic league play, however with their 2-2 draw over the weekend against NEC Nijmegen, they now hold just a one-point advantage over Twente.
To their advantage, the only player missing for head coach Fred Rutten is one long-term absentee, Brazilian forward Jonathan Reis.
Rangers are currently trailing arch-rivals Celtic by two points in the Scottish Premier League, albeit with one game in hand, and are in the midst of a packed schedule which sees Thursday's test sandwiched between last weekend's 1-0 league win over St. Mirren and Sunday's League Cup final against their Glasgow rivals.
First-choice keeper Allan McGregor is set to return to the nets after being replaced by backup Neil Alexander in the first leg.
The final does create one major staffing decision for Smith; forward Steven Naismith is ready to take the field again after recovering from his hamstring injury, however Smith must choose whether to play him on Thursday or wait three days to have him available for Sunday's final.
Otherwise, Nikica Jelavic is ineligible due to being cup-tied, while Jamie Ness, Lee McCulloch and Kirk Broadfoot remain out with injuries.