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London – Brendan Rodgers will have no fear starting Liverpool’s black players at Zenit St Petersburg on Thursday as he insists that his squad will find strength in adversity.
The spectre of racism has dominated the build-up to Liverpool’s Europa League tie and, mindful of Zenit supporters’ reputation, the Russian club on Wednesday said in a statement they are “working at full strength” to ensure the safety of players and fans.
Liverpool manager Rodgers had no hesitation taking Glen Johnson, Raheem Sterling and Andre Wisdom on the trip to the Petrovsky Stadium.
Sterling has already experienced racism this season, having played for England Under 21s in Serbia in October, but Rodgers believes he and his team-mates are mature enough to deal with anything untoward.
“I didn’t think of leaving anyone out,” Rodgers said. “Everyone from football, Uefa and referees will support any player it may affect.”
Liverpool have given no indication they would walk off the pitch should racism occur.
Rodgers added: “These boys all want to play. Glen Johnson has a lot of experience. Raheem Sterling has been through this before but we will unite together. If there is anything untoward, we will do everything as a club to stand behind those players affected.”
Zenit’s Ultras issued a manifesto saying they would not tolerate gay or non-white players at the club but Zenit reiterated their stance against racism last night.
The issue has masked the match’s importance to Liverpool. Following Monday’s home defeat by West Bromwich Albion, Rodgers could do with keeping the club’s European hopes alive.
“I thought if we got through the group stages, we would give this a real good go,” he said. “We have won this competition before. We take great pride in this being a winning club.”
Steven Gerrard, Luis Suarez and Pepe Reina will all start but Daniel Sturridge is ineligible and Daniel Agger has been rested against the Russian champions.
ZENIT ST PETERSBURG (4-1-2-3): Malafeev; Anukov, Bruno Alves, Lombaerts, Hubocan: Denisov; Shirokov, Witsel; Semak, Hulk, Kerzhakov.
LIVERPOOL (4-3-3): Reina; Johnson, Carragher, Skrtel, Enrique; Allen, Gerrard, Henderson; Borini, Suarez, Downing.
Kick-off: 7pm Petrovsky Stadium, St Petersburg.
Referee: Carlos Carballo (Spain). – Daily Mail