Russian sides Anzhi, Rubin and Zenit are preparing to play their opening competitive fixtures of 2013 as they will be settling scores in the first legs of their last 32 ties in the Europa League.
It's been a busy few days for Fedor Smolov and Roman Shirokov. Less than a day after helping Russia beat Iceland in Marbella they were back in Moscow to unveil footwear maker Nike's latest boots.
However, the two will have little time to relax, as their clubs start their Europa League knockout campaigns. Smolov's Anzhi are in action against Hannover, and the forward expects a tough match.
“Looking at the Bundersliga it would be safe to say that Hannover are good going forward. They score a lot, but also concede quite a few so they have some weaknesses in defense. This is something we could look to exploit, as we have plenty of firepower in attack,” he says.
Despite losing key defender Chris Samba who returned to the English Premier League, the side from Dagestan have strengthened their squad with the acquisition of Willian from Shakhtar Donetsk.
The Brazilian, who was one of the most sought after players in Europe, joined Guus Hiddink's team for a record Russian transfer fee of around 35 million euros. And according to Smolov it's great to have such an attacking array of talent at the club.
“It's great to be able to play alongside the likes of Willian and [Samuel] Eto'o. When we are training, I always look at how they play and try to learn from them. They are always willing to help the young players in the squad, and they are excellent players,” he says.
Meanwhile, Zenit will play host to Liverpool, which is arguably one of the ties of the round. Both sides have squad's that are capable of winning the competition. And Roman Shirokov is expecting a tough test against the side from the English Premier League.
“I never followed Liverpool when I was young, but I would look out for their results. It will be an interesting tie against them, as they have some excellent players,” the midfielder notes.
2013 is expected to be a bit of a relief for Zenit. Much was expected from the side from St. Petersburg following the big money signings of Hulk and Axel Witsel. However, the club was hindered by infighting which saw key midfielder Igor Denisov banished to the reserves for a month.
His fellow Russian international, Shirokov, says the club have put these problems behind them.
“The mood in the camp is much better. Also we are starting to win games, which keeps moral in the squad high,” he notes.
There is one more Russian club in action on Thursday, with Rubin having perhaps the toughest test of all. Their path to the last 16 is blocked by the reigning champions Atletico Madrid.
However, strengthened by French international Yann M'Vila they pledge to do battle against Radamel Falcao and Co.
It's been over four years since a Russian club won a major European trophy. However, certainly Anzhi and Zenit will fancy their chances of adding to that total this season.
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