FC Zenit St Petersburg goalkeeper Vyacheslav Malafeev feels a first-leg home win will be crucial when the round of 16 debutants take on SL Benfica in the UEFA Champions League.
The 32-year-old was between the posts for Russia when they lost 7-1 to Portugal at the home of Benfica's Lisbon rivals Sporting Clube de Portugal in a 2006 FIFA World Cup qualifier, and thus has good reason to be mindful of Portuguese sides' potency in front of their own fans. "Benfica are a good team," he said. "They finished top of the group and that says it all. A lot will be decided in the first leg in St Petersburg because Portuguese clubs are very strong at home."
Zenit and Benfica will be meeting for the first time, although Luciano Spalletti's men did encounter FC Porto in this season's group stage, drawing 0-0 at the Estádio do Dragão after a 3-1 victory in Russia. Zenit have yet to lose in three home games against Portuguese clubs, winning two, but they were beaten in the first of their two matches in Portugal, 4-3 by CD Nacional.
The St Petersburg outfit may also be able to get some useful information on their upcoming opponents from Danny, their Venezuelan-born Portuguese international, who represented CS Marítimo and Sporting in his native country before joining FC Dinamo Moskva in 2005.
Benfica, meanwhile, can take confidence from their record of only one defeat in eight games against Russian rivals. They were unbeaten in their first six matches until their last two-legged tie, in which PFC CSKA Moskva knocked them out of the 2004/05 UEFA Cup at the round of 32 stage, winning 2-0 in Krasnodar then drawing 1-1 in Lisbon.
Sporting director Rui Costa, who scored in Benfica's 4-2 aggregate victory against Dinamo Moskva in the 1992/93 UEFA Cup third round, sounds positive. "We are very confident of our potential and we have to be optimistic," he said. "Zenit did well in the group stage and knocked out Porto. We respect them – it will not be easy – but Benfica have a good enough team to go through."
The former ACF Fiorentina and AC Milan playmaker, now 39, added: "Zenit are not a defensive team. Their coach is Italian but not defensive. They have quality players up front, especially Danny, and know how to adapt to situations. Our objective is to go step by step and have a good UEFA Champions League campaign. It was very important for Benfica to return to the last 16. Now we will fight to reach at least the last eight."
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