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UEFA Champions League Group C preview: Zenit squares off with Milan

Group C of the UEFA Champions League appears wide open as Zenit St Petersburg and Malaga seek to capitalise on the decline of AC Milan.

Malaga have experienced two rollercoaster years following the arrival of Sheikh Abdullah Al-Thani as owner in 2010, spending their way to fourth place in La Liga last season, just three points behind European regulars Valencia.

After previously stating his intention to break the hegemony of Barcelona and Real Madrid, Al-Thani performed a bizarre U-turn in the close-season, apparently pulling the plug on his investment and leaving the club in limbo.

Financial uncertainty triggered a host of high-profile departures, chief among them the sale of playmaker Santi Cazorla to Arsenal for a reported fee of 19 million euros.

But they have defied expectations to remain competitive, shrewdly recruiting the likes of Javier Saviola, Oguchi Onyewu and Roque Santa Cruz in a combination of loan moves and free transfers.

Sitting third in La Liga after six matches played, they thumped Zenit 3-0 at home on matchday one.

This week coach Manuel Pellegrini, who guided similarly unfancied Villarreal to the Champions League semi-finals in 2005/06, takes Malaga to Anderlecht.

The Belgian side managed a credible 0-0 draw at struggling Serie A giants Milan last month, but may have a tougher task containing their in-form visitors from Spain.

As for Milan, they have struggled badly early in 2012/13 after being shorn of key men Thiago Silva and Zlatan Ibrahimovic, who were sold to Paris Saint-Germain in the close season.

Operating under strict budgetary constraints, coach Massimiliano Allegri, who led Milan to the Serie A title in 2010/11, has seen his team manage just two league wins in six attempts to date this term.

On Wednesday they go up against a club enjoying life at the opposite end of the financial scale, with Zenit, funded by Russian state energy company Gazprom, now among European football’s biggest spenders.

They stole the headlines last month with an audacious swoop for Porto forward Hulk and Benfica midfielder Axel Witsel, the pair reportedly costing a combined total of 100 million euros.

They join a squad already boasting Portuguese pair Bruno Alves and Danny, as well as several stars of the Russia national team, including striker Aleksandr Kerzhakov, goalkeeper Vyacheslav Malafeev, and midfielder Igor Denisov.

Reigning Russian Premier League champions under Italian coach Luciano Spalletti, Zenit have struggled early in the season, managing just one cup victory from their last five matches in all competitions.

Regardless of the disparity in resources at the clubs’ disposal, a victory for either team at the Petrovsky Stadium is likely to prove significant in their bid for European progression.

Tue 2 October, 2012
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