Saint Petersburg – Russian champions Zenit St Petersburg go into their Champions League clash with Italy's giants AC Milan shadowed by a bitter internal feud and a lack of domestic league wins that has tarnished their early season.
The multinational Russian side this weekend dropped two home points in a 1-1 draw with visitors Lokomotiv Moscow ahead of their Group C clash on Wednesday in Saint Petersburg.
Zenit have been riven by feuding after their big money signings of Brazilian star Hulk and Belgian Alex Witsel, the pair reportedly costing the club around 100 million euros. The moves sparked a revolt by some lesser-paid Russian stars.
The problems have been felt on the pitch Ä Zenit are seventh in the table with 18 points from 10 matches, five behind leaders Anzhi Makhachkala.
Zenit's star players Alexander Kerzhakov and Igor Denisov, who rebelled over the $6.5 million annual salary being earned by Hulk, demanded a pay rise, which led to teir demotion from the first team to the youth squad.
Kerzhakov returned to the senior squad ahead of the Lokomotiv encounter after several days with the youth line-up but started on the bench after being forgiven for his outburst.
He came as a half-time substitute but failed to make any contribution of note.
Russian national captain Denisov is still training with the youth line-up and will definitely miss the match with Milan. On Wednesday, Zenit will also be without their Slovak defender Tomas Hubocan, who is still injured.
Zenit's Portuguese midfielder Danny, who has recovered from his knee ligaments rupture but is still on his way to complete recovery, is uncertain for the match with Milan.
Despite losing points against Lokomotiv, Zenit manager Luciano Spalletti said he was pleased wth his team's performance and the state of affairs at his club.
“It wasn't our best match of the season, but I noticed some progress,” Spalletti said.
“We are coming back. Every year we experienced periods of hardship and this year is not an exception. But I believe we will manage to find the right way out and Zenit will become an easy-tempered and bright team again.”
Spalletti had an excellent record against Milan as coach of AS Roma, while Zenit's impressive recent European record at their home arena suggests a tough battle with the seven-time European champions in the two clubs' first ever meeting.
At the weekend Milan, who lost several key players in the summer and have made a disastrous start into the new season, produced a performance worthy of the 2012 league runners-up against Parma, recording a 1-1 away draw.
Milan forward Stephan El Shaarawy, an Italy under-21
international who has also made his senior nationanl side debut, was the star performer for Milan and scored a fine individual effort five minutes into the second half.
Despite Milan's domination, Parma saved the day with a 66th-minute equaliser from Daniele Galloppa's free-kick.
Zenit will try to improve their Group C position after a nightmarish 3-0 defeat at Malaga in the opening day, while Milan drew 0-0 at home with Andrlecht in their opener. – Sapa-AFP