W HATEVER transpires at the Stadion Petrovsky in St Petersburg this evening, it is to be hoped the action is confined to the pitch.
The backdrop to what seems likely to be a diverting last-32 encounter between the big-spending Russians and Brendan Rodgers' Barclays Premier League work-in-progress was set when Liverpool were so concerned by the possibility of racist abuse against their players that official letters were penned to Uefa and Fifa on the matter.
The correspondence was in connection with a manifesto issued by a group of Zenit ultras, named Landscrona, back in December, which called for gay and non-European players to be banned from their club. Although Zenit have a multi-cultural squad these days – coach Luciano Spalletti lavished a combined £64m for Hulk, the Brazilian striker, and Belgian Axel Witsel, whose father is from Martinique – and insist such intolerance is very much a minority view, they are unable to guarantee an incident-free game.
Liverpool, who could feature the likes of Glen Johnson, Andre Wisdom and Raheem Sterling, have briefed their players on how to deal with any racist incidents, with managing director Ian Ayre hopeful any players targeted would remain on the park, rather than walk off as AC Milan's Kevin Prince-Boateng recently did during a friendly against Italian minnows Pro Patria. "It's been a major concern for us," Ayre has said. "We await some responses [from Fifa and Uefa] in that regard. The most important thing for our players is that they remain professional throughout this. We certainly won't tolerate that type of attitude or any of those types of incidents from our team. I'd much rather we take the incident off the pitch and we deal with it. But we'll be briefing our players on what's acceptable and what's not."
Despite their denials, Zenit are a club with some previous in this regard. In March 2011, the club were fined £6250 when a supporter issued Brazilian full-back Roberto Carlos, of Russian rivals Anzhi Makhachkala, with a banana during a pre-match ceremony; there was another fine for racist chanting during a meeting with Marseille; while Yann M'Vila, the French internationalist, cited the actions of the fans as reason for turning down a move there.
The situation has the potential to be politically embarrassing for a club who are backed by the state-owned gas giant Gazprom – also one of Uefa's main sponsors – and supported by the likes of Dmitry Medvedev, the Russian Prime Minister, with an increased spotlight on the country since it was awarded World Cup 2018. "Without wanting to pre-empt problems, I certainly think this is one of those games that has the potential for tension, the fact that Liverpool have three or four prominent black players who will be vulnerable playing on the wings, and quite close to the crowd," said Piara Powar, executive director of Football Against Racism in Europe (FARE).
Assuming the action does take place on the pitch, the Europa League last 32 is full of Eastern promise. Zenit are one of three Russian teams still in the competition (along with Anzhi and Rubin Kazan), in addition to three from Ukraine (Metalist Kharkiv, Dinamo Kiev and Dnipro) and Belarusians BATE Borisov.
Zenit, champions in 2008 against Rangers in Manchester, have replenished their squad with the likes of Luis Neto, the Siena centre-back, and Serbian left-back Milan Rodic during the transfer window, but the real roubles have been spent by Anzhi, a side that Liverpool finished ahead of in qualifying. Guus Hiddink's star-studded outfit added Shakhtar Donetsk's Brazilian attacker Willian to their contingent of footballing millionaires for the small matter of €34m, and should be too good for German side Hannover. Shakhtar moved quickly to replace their man with another highly-rated Brazilian, Taison, from Metalist, which makes the task facing Newcastle United somewhat simpler when they arrive in Kharkiv this evening.
The involvement of the other two English teams is dominated by the return of two prodigal sons: Hugo Lloris, the Tottenham Hotspur goalkeeper, finds himself pitted against his former team Lyon, while another goalkeeper returning to his former home is Petr Cech against Sparta Prague. At least someone is assured of a warm welcome.