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Bayer 04 Leverkusen coach Michael Skibbe is backing his players to rediscover their best form in the UEFA Cup quarter-final against FC Zenit St. Petersburg after suffering successive losses in the Bundesliga.
Defeat at leaders FC Bayern München was followed by Saturday's hugely disappointing 2-0 reverse at home to Eintracht Frankfurt, leaving Leverkusen ten points off the championship pace in fourth position. With the title slipping from reach, the first-leg visit of the Russian champions has taken on added importance, and Skibbe has no doubt his men will rise to the occasion. "The confidence is returning and we're ready to put this bad spell behind us," the 42-year-old said.
"We're delighted to have reached the quarter-finals but we don't want to stop there. If we get a good result against Zenit, and I'm convinced we will, then we could enjoy a great end to the season." Leverkusen's European run has been founded on their exceptional home form. The 1987/88 UEFA Cup winners have chalked up five straight victories at the BayArena, including wins against Galatasaray AS and Hamburger SV in the Rounds of 32 and 16 respectively, yet Skibbe refuses to get carried away.
"Zenit are a strong team," he warned. "They pass the ball well and are quick to turn defence into attack. They've already beaten Villarreal [CF] and [Olympique de] Marseille so it would be foolish to underestimate them." Skibbe is especially wary of getting caught on the counterattack, singling out Andrei Arshavin as the visitors' principal threat, and he could bring the industrious Arturo Vidal into midfield at the expense of Sergej Barbarez. "The ideal scenario is to win without conceding," he said. "Even if it's only a narrow win, I'll be very happy."
The two coaches are well-acquainted. Skibbe's BV Borussia Dortmund side edged past Advocaat's Rangers FC on penalties in the 1999/2000 UEFA Cup third round; the German was also Rudi Völler's assistant when the national team drew 1-1 with Advocaat's Netherlands at UEFA EURO 2004™. "I'm looking forward to crossing swords with him again," Skibbe smiled. For his part, Advocaat – who will watch from the stands as he completes a touchline ban – is targeting a fourth victory on his eleventh trip to Germany as a coach. However, Zenit have failed to beat Bundesliga opposition in six attempts so the 60-year-old knows it will take a special effort to end that sequence. "Any team competing near the top of the Bundesliga are an excellent side," he said. "Leverkusen will be difficult to tame in front of their fans."
Zenit also go into the game on the back of a domestic setback, having lost 3-1 at home to FC Rubin Kazan in their third match of the Russian Premier-Liga season on Sunday. Fernando Ricksen, Kim Dong Jin and Victor Fayzulin are all carrying knocks and were described as "doubtful" by Advocaat, who will be hoping the competition's joint-leading scorer Pavel Pogrebnyak adds to his tally of seven goals. "Whenever we play, we always try to score," said the trainer. "Our priority is to be well-organised but scoring is also extremely important."
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