At the heart of the FC Zenit defence which has helped take the Russian challengers to within touching distance of the UEFA Champions League knockout phase, Belgian centre-back Nicolas Lombaerts believes his side have what it takes to complete the job.
After earning a 1-1 draw with Group G winners Club Atlético de Madrid last time out, Luciano Spalletti's men will take the second qualification spot ahead of FC Porto if they can defeat FK Austria Wien in Vienna on Wednesday. "It is in our own hands now; we have to give 100% for one more game," said the 28-year-old, who discusses Zenit's chances, Spalletti's tactical expertise and his own role in the side with UEFA.com.
UEFA.com: The draw at home to Atlético on matchday five was crucial. Tell us about the game and the team's reaction.
Nicolas Lombaerts: It was our last chance to qualify for the next round, and luckily Porto also drew, and because of that if we win our match against Austria we will qualify. It was important not to lose [to Atlético], but we went for the victory, and I think you could see that from the start. They took the lead and after that it became difficult for us, but luckily we were able to equalise. Now we have everything in our own hands and the return match against Austria is the most important match of the season.
UEFA.com: The battle for second place in Group G has been extremely close. How testing has this UEFA Champions League campaign been?
Lombaerts: It is a very exciting battle for second place. It was clear from the first match that Atlético would win this group, and that the other three would be fighting for second place. Now we have a one-point lead and we have it all in our own hands, but we will have to fight until the bitter end.
We are motivated because we did not manage to qualify last season. I think we gave it away, we gave away points. It is in our own hands now. It would be a shame if we give it away again. We have to give 100% for one more game and then we should be able to achieve it.
UEFA.com: How do you assess the way Zenit have played so far in the group? Have you reached your full potential?
Lombaerts: I do not think that we have showed our full strength, because I think we certainly could have won one of the three home matches. I think we dropped a lot of points there, and we could have qualified some time ago. But we have not been lucky at home, and luckily for us Porto have also dropped points. Because of that we still have a chance to get to the next round.
UEFA.com: How will you approach the game against Austria Wien?
Lombaerts: I do not think you need any motivation for these matches; the motivation is there no matter what. We are taking it like every match, but maybe we will be even sharper. We never adapt to our opponent, and I do not think that we should do that now against Austria. But yes, we will go for it from the first minute and we will try to score as quickly as possible so that we can get some breathing space.
UEFA.com: Tell us about Luciano Spalletti. What is his footballing philosophy and how will he want the team to play in Austria?
Lombaerts: Luciano Spalletti is a very good coach; I think I have learned a lot from him. He puts a lot of importance on the defence; we also have a special coach for that, and in the last three, four years, I have learned so much more about positioning. Tactically he is a master. He is someone who likes details. I think he is a very good tactician but also a good motivator, otherwise he would not have been here for almost four years.
UEFA.com: How much potential does this Zenit team have? How far can you go in this competition?
Lombaerts: First we will look at our match against Austria and then we can think about the stage ahead. From the last 16 on you only have top teams, but anything is possible in football. We have a strong team, so we have to believe in our chances. But I think the next match is the most important.
UEFA.com: How would you describe your role at Zenit?
Lombaerts: I am a central defender and I am a straightforward player and I think it is still the most important task of a defender to defend. I have been playing here for almost seven years, so more responsibility is expected from me. I talk more on the pitch and also off the pitch and I think that with my experience I can teach the group something.
UEFA.com: What is the biggest difference between the UEFA Champions League and other competitions?
Lombaerts: I think the level in the Champions League is higher. It is the highest possible club level. It is quicker, and you play against the best attackers in the world. It is a challenge for every defender to neutralise those sorts of players. If you manage to keep those types of players out of the game, then it is even more satisfying than in other competitions.
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