MOSCOW, September 17 (RIA Novosti)
The ambitions of Zenit St. Petersburg and Brazil striker Hulk for Champions League glory face their first test Tuesday away to a Malaga side riding high in La Liga and making their debut in Europe’s top club competition.
Confidence is high at Zenit ahead of the start of their European campaign after reaching the knockout stages for the first time in last year’s Champions League, and goalkeeper Vyacheslav Malafeev has said he believes the team could lift the trophy next season.
The signings of Hulk from Porto and midfielder Axel Witsel from Benfica for a combined €80 million earlier this month underlined the financial might at Zenit, owned by Russian state gas company Gazprom, although Witsel is set to miss the Malaga game with a hamstring injury.
The Belgian joins an injury list that also contains experienced midfielder Sergei Semak, attacking midfieler Miguel Danny and Italy left-back Domenico Criscito, all ruled out of the game.
Meanwhile, Malaga’s early-season form has seen the team rise to second in the Spanish league with 10 points from four games, albeit none against top-class opposition, but reports of a financial crisis and unpaid wages at the club have unsettled things.
Malaga will reportedly miss ex-France holding midfielder Jeremy Toulalan, who represented his country at Euro 2008 and the 2010 World Cup and joined Malaga last season for a reported €10 million after four years with Olympique Lyonnais.
New signing Javier Saviola will reach the landmark of playing for five different clubs in the Champions League if the Argentine striker, 30, starts Tuesday’s match. His last meeting with Zenit saw him score twice against the Russians for Sevilla in the 2005-06 UEFA Cup.
Zenit have a poor history in Spain, losing all four of their past European ties there, and face the added difficulty of having to bounce back from a 2-0 defeat to Terek Grozny on Friday in which Hulk and Witsel debuted, and which left Zenit fourth in the Russian league.
Manuel Pellegini’s Malaga come into the tie at La Rosaleda with less down time after their 3-1 home league win against Levante on Saturday.
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