Bnei Yehuda vs Zenit St Petersburg – Thursday 27 July 18:30 BST/19:30 CET – HaMoshava Stadium, Petah Tikva
Zenit must take a trip back to the Israeli baking heat on their quest to reach the group stages of the Europa League, with relatively unknown quantity Bnei Yehuda standing in their path. The match will take place in the sleepy Tel Aviv satellite town of Petah Tikva as the Bloomfield Stadium is being redeveloped, but the buildup to the game has been anything but sleepy. Two weeks ago, three Arab-Israelis gunned down two police officers in broad daylight outside Temple Mount – the first such atrocity in decades outside Jerusalem’s most sacred holy site – while on Monday an Arab-Israeli man, apparently mistaken for being Jewish, was fatally stabbed in Petah Tikva itself about 3km from the ground by an Arab man from the West Bank.
In response to the deaths in Jerusalem, the Israeli government has installed metal detectors outside Temple Mount and closed down the complex to all visitors for two days from 14 July to search for weapons, the first time it has been closed on a Friday since 1969. Tensions between the Palestinian and Israeli governments have been ratcheted up since.
As for the football, Bnei Yehuda lack serious pedigree domestically or continentally. This is their sixth European campaign in the last 11 years, all in the UEFA Cup/Europa League, but they have never reached the group stages. Last season’s Israeli Cup triumph was their first trophy for 27 years, and three years ago they were relegated from the top flight. Luminaries such as former Celta Vigo, Fenerbahce and Galatasaray forward Haim Revivo, Brighton striker Tomer Hemed and Nigerian legend Vincent Enyeama have all passed through the club, but of the present squad the highest profile names are probably Lithuanian internationals Emilijus Zubas and Nerijus Valskis
Zenit travel from St Petersburg having already negotiated the mammoth trip to Khabarovsk and the visit of a resurgent Rubin Kazan successfully. At the weekend they face local rivals Tosno in their old Petrovsky stadium, so at least they will have a comfortable landing in sporting terms to follow this first leg. Memories of last season’s spectacular comeback from 3-0 down after 75 minutes to win 4-3 in injury time against Maccabi Tel Aviv in the group stages will inspire Roberto Mancini’s side to kickstart their campaign positively.
With the strain of travel in mind, though, it is likely that the impressive squad depth will be used to sensible effect. The likes of Dmitry Poloz, Alexander Erokhin and Yuri Zhirkov – none of whom have started yet under the Italian – could play a part. While the knowledge that the awe-inspiring Krestovsky Stadium awaits in a week’s time as a back-up in the return leg is comforting to an extent, an away goal would all but seal the result, and it is unlikely Mancini will leave progression to the group stages to chance.
Bnei Yehuda vs Zenit St Petersburg – Players to Watch Out For
Nerius Valskis #21 – Bnei Yehuda
The 29-year-old Lithuanian international striker is already at his 11th club in his sixth country, but he is the chosen forward to lead the line for Bnei Yehuda. Standing tall at 1.85m, Valskis was the club’s second-top goalscorer last season, and despite only playing 19 matches he boasted the best goals-to-games ratio of the entire squad. It was his goal that gave the Israelis the lead after just three minutes of the first leg against Trencin in Slovakia, so with his threat nullified, Zenit will be able to concentrate on creating their problems.
Christian Noboa #16 – Zenit St Petersburg
Having been forced to sit out the opening two league games due to a suspension hanging over from last season on Rostov duty, Noboa will be fresher than his new teammates. The Ecuadorian deep-lying playmaker will be ideally suited to the forecasted 33-degree conditions, and his vast experience and quality in possession will help to calm any nerves that might set in if Bnei Yehuda force the issue early on. His set pieces, in particular, could prove to a vital weapon in attack while also conserving energy; the only question is how long he will be asked to play.
Bnei Yehuda vs Zenit St Petersburg – Match Stats
- Bnei Yehuda have only made it past this stage once before when they were knocked out 2-0 on aggregate by Dutch giants PSV Eindhoven eight years ago
- Their home form in Europe is strong – they’ve won four of their last five continental home fixtures without conceding a goal
- Zenit’s dramatic encounter last season with Maccabi Tel Aviv in the group stages is the only previous time they have faced Israeli opposition
- Zenit failed to keep a clean sheet in last season’s Europa League, conceding nine goals in their four matches
Futbolgrad Prediction: Bnei Yehuda vs Zenit St Petersburg – 0-1
Bnei Yehuda vs Zenit St Petersburg – Possible Starting Lineups
Zubas – Azuz, Turgeman, Konstantini, Habashi – Gordana, Finish, Ben Ari – Hozez, Valskis, Tchibota
Manager: Yossi Abukakis
Zenit St Petersburg
Lunev – Tsallagov, Ivanović, Criscito, Zhirkov – Noboa, Hernani – Shatov, Erokhin, Giuliano – Dzyuba
Manager: Roberto Mancini
Andrew Flint is an English freelance football writer living in Tyumen, Western Siberia, with his wife and two daughters. He has featured on These Football Times, Russian Football News, Four Four Two and Sovetski Sport, mostly focusing on full-length articles about derbies, youth development and the game in Russia. Due to his love for FC Tyumen, he is particularly interested in lower league Russian football and is looking to establish himself in time for the 2018 World Cup. Follow Andrew on Twitter @AndrewMijFlint.