Europa League round of 32: Celtic drawn to face Zenit St Petersburg

By Alasdair LamontBBC Scotland
Scott Brown
Celtic dropped into the Europa League after finishing third in their Champions League group

Celtic manager Brendan Rodgers says the Russian winter break could work in his side's favour when they face Zenit St Petersburg in the Europa League.

Rodgers' men have been drawn to face Roberto Mancini's side in February.

The Russian season closes down this month and Zenit will not play a competitive match in the period before their last-32 tie.

Rodgers says "it doesn't make it the easiest" having to play big matches after long periods of inactivity.

"We experience that a different way ourselves when we play in the [summer] Champions League qualifiers," said the Celtic manager.

"Some of the teams are in season and we are just coming back and we are playing very important games, in our pre-season.

"So I suppose they have it the other way. They play tonight and then I think they will be having their break and then they are into these important games.

"So you can still qualify but of course if you are in rhythm and in season then it does make it a little bit easier."

Roberto Mancini
Italian Mancini was previously boss of Manchester City

Celtic host Zenit on 15 February and travel to St Petersburg on 22 February.

The Scottish champions were in the unseeded pot for the first of the tournament's knockout rounds. They finished third in their Champions League group, following last week's home defeat by Anderlecht, to drop into Europe's second-tier competition.

Following a third-place finish last season, Zenit are currently fourth in Russia's Premier League, behind Krasnodar, Spartak Moscow and Lokomotiv Moscow.

They play their last match on Monday (11 December), against Akhmat Grozny, before almost a three-month winter break, with league fixtures not resuming until 4 March.

Zenit, who beat Rangers in the 2008 final to win the Uefa Cup, and went on to win the Uefa Super Cup that year, have won the Russian title five times.

They have former Chelsea defenders Branislav Ivanovic and Yuri Zhirkov in their squad, as well as a host of Russian internationals, including Viktor Fayzulin and Igor Smolnikov, and Italy international Domenico Criscito.

Zenit dominated Europa League Group L on their way to the knockout stage. The Russians finished top of the pool on 16 points after five wins and one draw, with Real Sociedad four points adrift in second. Rosenborg and FK Vardar finished third and fourth.

Saint Petersburg Stadium
Saint Petersburg Stadium was opened this year ahead of the World Cup in 2018

Zenit also finished the group stage campaign as the competition's top scorers with 17 from their six matches - they conceded just five goals.

Rodgers faced the Russian side in the same competition in 2013 during his time as Liverpool boss, losing the first leg 2-0 before the return at Anfield.

"We had played well out there but gave a couple of sloppy goals away, which was disappointing," said the Northern Irishman. "In the second leg at home we went 1-0 down early on, which was a 3-0 deficit, but got back the three goals and we just needed one more.

"We had 25 minutes/half-hour to score it and went close and couldn't just make it so we went out on away goals.

"St Petersburg is a beautiful city from my memory so we will look forward to that when the game comes along and it will be nice to see Roberto Mancini again."

Celtic will face the Russians in the Saint Petersburg Stadium, opened in 2017, but a partial closure will be in place after Zenit were punished by Uefa for their fans displaying a "discriminatory banner" in a match against FK Vardar in November.

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