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Ground vacated by Milan, Zenit – UEFA Champions League Group C preview

Oct 3, 2012, 12:27 AM EST

Parma FC v AC Milan - Serie A Getty Images

With one matchday in the books, Group C has been turned on its head. Milan and Zenit, favorites to go through, are playing like the group’s weakest sides. Málaga, thought on the edge of turmoil, are now the favorites, with Anderlecht’s opening round point at the San Siro positioning the Belgians to profit if the big two don’t wake up.

Two weeks ago, Group C changed in one, two-hour blink of the eye. On Wednesday, it could happen again, even it the Russia start time means it’d be a five-hour blink.

Zenit St. Petersburg (Russia) versus Milan (Italy)
Petrovsky Stadium, St. Petersburg, 12:00 p.m. Eastern

They were expected the best of Group C, but given how Zenit and Milan have started the tournament, Wednesday’s match comes with unexpectedly high stakes. Milan face the toughest trip of the group and the specter of being without a point and in last place by this time on Thursday. An after Zenit was surprisingly Isco’d in Andalusia, a home loss to a struggling Milan will only deepen the disillusionment that’s surrounding the club.

Zenit’s depression began in mid-August when the then 4-0-0 Russians embarked a 1-2-2 slump, falling to the middle of a Premier League table they’d dominated since the hire of Luciano Spalletti. Their 3-0 defeat at Málaga came in the middle of that downturn, a clear sign that the Hulk-Axel Witsel shopping spree was no red eye to Europe’s penthouse. With outsiders now questioning how Hulk’s settled in the team (the only issue is language, he says), Zenit’s spending spree seems more disruptive than helpful.

That can all turn around on Wednesday, and Zenit doesn’t even have to get their act together to make it happen. Milan’s been more adrift than Zenit, sitting 11th in Serie A after losing three of their first four. The Rossoneri have since rebounded, kind of. They beat last place Calgiari and drew a Parma team whose only win came against a Chievo side destined to battle relegation.

Most concerning about Milan is the morose attitude surrounding the team. Everybody is focusing on who left there rather than who stayed. Zlatan Ibrahimovic and Thiago Silva were huge losses, sold to Parsi Saint-Germain, but the rest of the losses (a ton of veteran players like Clarence Seedorf, Mark van Bommel, Gennaro Gattuso and Alessandro Nesta) were not irreplaceable, especially given their sketchy injury records. Max Allegri was left with a team that had the likes of Robinho, Alexandre Pato, Kevin Prince Boateng, Ricardo Montolivo, Antonio Nocerino and Nigel de Jong. They’re since added Giampaolo Pazzini and seen youngsters Stephan El Shaaraawy and Mattia De Sciglio get off to strong starts. In Serie A’s new world order, that’s enough to complete for Champions League, but because of the defeatist attitude engulfing the club, nobody has noticed.

Perhaps somewhere along the 1722-mile trip to northwest Russia Milan will snap out of their funk. But long road trips usually calcify ennui. A struggling Rossoneri side iss unlikely to see a chilly, rainy St. Petersburg motivating.

More: Group A Group B Group C Group D

Anderlecht (Belgium) versus Málaga (Spain)
Constant Vanden Stock Stadium, Brussels, 2:45 p.m. Eastern

How cool would it be if Oguchi Onyewu got to play for Málaga? It’s unlikely to happen, the U.S. international yet to appear domestically for his new club, but if he did, we’d have an American on each side of the ball, with former Chivas USA midfielder Sacha Kljestan a probable starter for Anderlecht. While we won’t get to see it, the mere possibility reminds us that U.S. players are slowly creeping deeper and deeper into the European game. It’s only a matter of time before two Yanks are shaking hands before a Champions League kickoff.

In terms of what will happen on the field tomorrow …

The match gives Anderlecht a chance to show they’re more than a team that can hold out against an idea-less Milan. At the San Siro, they put only two shots on Christian Abbiati, and while a point at Milan is not something for the likes of Anderlecht to second guess, there was a feeling the Belgians could have done more. It was worth taking a chance against the Milan side still learning how to create goals in an Ibrahimovic/Antonio Cassano-less world.

At home against Málaga, Anderlecht are going to have to do more, yet the Andalusians will present a more difficult challenge. Manuel Pellegrini’s team is better than Milan’s, an undefeated start in Spain complemented by their 3-0 Champions League win over Zenit. As he’s done at every place he’s coached over the last decade, Pellegrini’s instilled an approach that may not be flashy but produces tight, cohesive teams with enough flexibility to both take advantage of opponents as well as incorporate players like Juan Román Riquelme and Robert Pires.

Now Pellegrini may have another gem, one that has offset the preseason loss of Santi Cazorla. Even before his two-goal Champions League debut, Isco was drawing the attention of some of Europe’s biggest clubs. Though he hasn’t been able to build on that performance, he still has the type of game-breaking talent that could give Anderlecht defenders Marcin Wasilewski and Cheikhou Kouyate trouble. More worrisome or Anderlecht, he could prove a thorn in the side of Lucas Biglia, Anderlecht’s best distributor.

That Isco, like his club, is still a relative unknown to the broader Champions League audience fuels the idea that Anderlecht can build on the Milan result. They very well might, but if they do so, it will be against a better team. Málaga may not have Milan’s brand, but they’ll pose a much bigger challenge.

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