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Zenit St Petersburg will welcome Real Betis to the Gazprom Arena on Thursday for the first leg of their Europa League knockout tie.

The reigning Russian Premier League champions enter the competition after dropping down from the Champions League, while Manuel Pellegrini’s side feature in the playoff round following a second-placed finish in their Europa League group.

Thursday’s Europa League contest represents Zenit’s first meaningful fixture since a 1-1 league draw against Dynamo Moscow on December 12.

With the Russian Premier League currently on a winter break, Thursday’s hosts have spent recent weeks playing in friendlies and competing in the Atlantic Cup – a mid-season tournament for those participating in leagues with long winter breaks.

Sergei Samak’s side can take confidence from the fact they won the Atlantic Cup for the second time, but their main focus now turns to two crucial games against Real Betis.

Despite winning once in the Champions League group stage, Zenit competed well in a difficult group that contained Juventus and Chelsea, while their five-point tally was enough to secure them a place in the Europa League last 32.

Zenit will be confident of making the most of home advantage, having won nine of their previous 12 home matches in the Europa League knockout phase.

Nabil Fekir in action for Real Betis in November 2021© Reuters

Real Betis enter the first leg in a buoyant mood after winning their last two matches in all competitions, including a 4-2 away victory against Levante on Sunday.

Goals from Nabil Fekir, Edgar Gonzalez and William Carvalho gave Los Verdiblancos a three-goal lead before Dani Gomez netted either side of half time to cut the deficit to one, but another Fekir effort ensured that the visitors would take all three points back to Andalusia.

To this point, Real Betis have enjoyed a successful season, with Pellegrini’s side one game away from the Copa del Rey final after winning the first leg of their semi-final against Rayo Vallecano, while they currently occupy a position in the top four of La Liga as they look to qualify for the Champions League.

On Thursday, Los Verdiblancos will turn their focus towards European action as they aim to clinch just their second competitive victory over Russian opposition.

Having won their last four away matches in all competitions, Real Betis will head to the Gazprom Stadium full of confidence, with the visitors aiming to pick up a positive result to take back to the Estadio Benito Villamarin.

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