Can Zenit make the Champions League quarterfinals, and will Russia beat Turkey in Europe?

Olympique Lyon’s Mathieu Valbuena (L) challenges Zenit St. Petersburg's Hulk during their Champions League Group H soccer match in Lyon, France, November 4, 2015. © Emmanuel Foudrot
Zenit St Petersburg, Lokomotiv Moscow and FK Krasnodar will face Benfica, Fenerbahce and Sparta Prague in the knockout stages of the Champions League and Europa League. Can Zenit progress to the quarterfinals? Can Russia beat Turkey in Europe?

Andre Villas-Boas will take Zenit back to his native Portugal to take on Benfica in February for the first leg of their UEFA Champions League last 16, before turning host in March for the second leg. The Russians have never progressed beyond the first knockout stage but have a fantastic chance to make history, having avoided the big guns during Monday’s draw in Switzerland.

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PSG, Arsenal and Juventus were among the names to be potentially paired with Zenit in the draw, and the Russian side will fancy their chances against the Portuguese. Benfica are well off the pace domestically, sitting eight points behind Sporting CP in the Portuguese league, and having picked up just one point from their last two Group C matches against Atletico Madrid and Kazakhstani minnows Astana.

A strong first leg performance from Zenit should be enough to see them through to the quarterfinals, and what will be unknown waters for this exciting team.

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In the UEFA Europa League, both Lokomotiv and Krasnodar are still going strong, and have tasty teams to look forward to.

Lokomotiv’s opponents in the last 32 are Fenerbahçe of the Turkish Süper Lig. Their two matches in February will mark the first matches between Russian and Turkish clubs since the downing of the Russian warplane on November 24.

There have been tensions between football fans of both countries before the incident, with a 27-year-old Lokomotiv Moscow fan stabbed in Istanbul after he and his friend were assaulted by a mob. The incident happened on November 4, a day before Lokomotiv were due to play Besiktas in the Europa League.

Since the November 24 incident, there have been fears of further clashes. The mayor of Ghent in Belgium initially banned Russian fans from attending the Ghent v Zenit match on December 9, supposedly due to Ghent's large Turkish population. The ban was removed before the match, as Zenit demanded additional security for their players and at the stadium. The match itself played out without any incidents on or off the pitch.

Fenerbahçe's form has been up and down in Europe this season, managing just two wins from six and just securing qualification ahead of Ajax on the final day of the group stage, which looks promising for Lokomotiv.

Krasnodar has never before reached the last 32 in the Europa League, and will be looking forward to their clash against Sparta Prague. The Czech team reached the semifinal group in the Champions League in 1991/92, and has participated in the group stages of the Champions League between 1997 and 2006, but failed to make the tournament since.

Though it is now firmly a Europa League team, Sparta has gone about its business quietly and effectively, going undefeated in the group stage and very used to European competition. Krasnodar may be looking forward to the game, but they should keep their wits about them against the 33-time Czech league champions.

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