What can Dundalk expect from Zenit Saint Petersburg?

The Irish champions have already avoided defeat against Maccabi Tel Aviv and AZ Alkmaar

Axel Witsel, Zenit

Haris Medunjanin of Maccabi Tel Aviv tries to stop Axel Witsel of Zenit during UEFA Europa League Group D soccer match in Netanya, Israel, Thursday, Sept. 15, 2016. Picture by Ariel Schalit AP/Press Association Images

Two games into the Europa League group stage campaign and Dundalk have more than held their own.

A creditable 1-1 draw at AZ Alkmaar of the Netherlands was followed by a historic and famous 1-0 victory over Maccabi Tel Aviv at Tallaght Stadium, to leave the League of Ireland champions on four points from a potential six.

But Thursday is a day of reckoning against the strongest team in the group Zenit Saint Petersburg.

This challenge may prove to be a step too far but Dundalk have already defied expectations thus far.

So what can they expect from the Russians in Tallaght?

Pedigree

Zenit have plenty of previous in Europe given that they won this very tournament in its UEFA Cup incarnation back in 2008 by defeating Rangers in the final.

During that run to the final in Manchester, they defeated Bayern Munich over two legs in the semi-finals, having got past Bayer Leverkusen, Marseille and Villarreal in the previous rounds.

They also added another European trophy in 2008 when they overcame then-Champions League holders Manchester United in the UEFA Super Cup.

That 2-1 win featured this blatant handball from Paul Scholes that earned the United midfielder a second yellow card... decent finish, mind you:

They have also been regulars in the Champions League group stages over the years, qualifying for the first knockout round last season and the quarter-finals in 2014-15.

Indeed, this is the first season that they failed to be involved in the Champions League group stages since 2010-11.

Form

Fast forward to this season and coming back off a 2015-16 domestic campaign which saw Zenit finish third in the Russian Premier League and win the Cup under former Chelsea and Tottenham boss Andre Villas-Boas, 2016-17 has started off more positively.

After 10 matches of the Russian season, the 2007, 2010, 2012 and 2015 league champions are joint-top alongside Spartak Moscow with six wins, four draws and no defeats under Mircea Lucescu.

Their Europa League campaign has also started with two wins from two, to sit two points clear of Dundalk.

The first win was a 4-3 thriller against Maccabi, with Zenit scoring four goals in the final 15 minutes to narrowly defeat their opponents in Israel.

While that was a little too close for comfort, the club were far more decisive when they faced AZ at home, defeating the Dutch side 5-0 at the Petrovsky Stadium.

Players to look out for

Before we get to players, the manager Lucescu knows a thing or two about European football.

The experienced Romanian (71) was manager of Shakhtar Donestk for 12 years from 2004, enjoying success in Ukraine and abroad.

He led Shakhtar to eight league titles, six Ukrainian Cups as well as UEFA Cup glory in 2008-09.

Lucescu also guided Shakhtar to the Champions League quarter-finals in 2009-10 and last season's Europa League semis.

As for the players at his disposal now he has moved to St Petersburg, up to 10 of Zenit's players have been called up by the Russia national team in recent times including striker Artem Dzyuba, ex-Chelsea left-back Yuri Khirkov and Aleksandr Kerzhakov.

The most recognisable name in the current squad however is dynamic Belgium midfielder Axel Witsel who has been at the club since 2012.

Top scorer domestically this season is Brazilian attacking midfielder Giuliano with six goals, one ahead of Dzyuba.

Tactically, 4-2-3-1 has been the staple formation with Dzyuba leading the line against AZ in their last Europa League fixture and Guiliano playing in the No 10 role. Witsel partnered Spanish former Man City midfielder Javi Garcia in the deepest midfield role with Belgium international Nicolas Lombaerts at centre-back.