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With Russian football still on its winter break, FC Zenit St Petersburg are itching to return to action as Liverpool FC visit the Stadion Petrovski for Thursday's UEFA Europa League round of 32 opener.
Striker Aleksandr Kerzhakov is eager to blow off the cobwebs as the Reds come calling, saying: "I am 100% ready – all my injuries are long-since healed and I am training with the team. We all very much want to win. We are in pretty much peak condition and ready to show what we can do." Zenit's Italian coach Luciano Spalletti added: "We have done all the necessary preparation, on the training ground and in friendly games, and my players look fine. We are used to playing at this time of the year."
Kerzhakov and Spalletti both watched Liverpool's 2-0 Premier League home defeat by West Bromwich Albion FC on Monday but that did little to change their opinion of Brendan Rodgers' side. "The character and mentality we show will be crucial," said Spalletti. "Certainly, if you give a great player like Steven Gerrard enough time he can put the ball wherever he wants. If our defenders allow Luis Suárez to receive the ball, or give him a one-on-one, he will cause us a lot of problems."
With a trip to Anfield looming next week, the key for Zenit will be to establish a decent springboard. "We want to win so we can be comfortable going into the away game, and that means scoring as many as we can and not conceding," said Russian international Kerzhakov, 30.
Spalletti, however, injected a note of caution: "When you play teams like this, you know that no first-leg result can guarantee you anything going into the away game. We will look to score so we can go into the Liverpool leg with something to build on."
The match will see Liverpool centre-half Martin Škrtel return to the club he represented from 2004–08, but Kerzhakov – who featured alongside the Slovakian during his own first spell at Zenit – is just as wary of Škrtel's Danish partner in defence. "It has been a long time since Martin Škrtel played for us and he has come on since, becoming a central figure for Liverpool and his national team," he said. "I have played against Daniel Agger too, and both of them are good, tenacious defenders who like a battle."
Indeed Rodgers is expecting just that. "It will be difficult but the main thing is the fighting spirit of our team," said the Anfield manager. "We are very serious and ready to give our all to be successful here. However, the return match is more important than the first leg and everything will be decided then. We are focused only on tomorrow's game – we will field the strongest possible lineup."
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