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Friday 3 February 2023 Dublin: 10°C
# lowdown
Everything you need to know about Dundalk's Europa League opponents
The Lilywhites will take on Zenit Saint-Petersburg, AZ Alkmaar and Maccabi Tel Aviv in the group stages.

Zenit Saint Petersburg

Pedigree: 

The club finished third in the Russian top-flight in 2015/2016, six points behind eventual winners CSKA.

In September, Andre Villas-Boas had announced his intention to leave the club at the end of the season so it was no surprise when Zenit fell short domestically. However, they did win the Russian Cup to give him a decent send-off.

They have impressed in Europe in recent seasons.

They enjoyed an excellent Champions League campaign last term, losing just once in the group stages before going down to Benfica in the round of 16.

Britain Soccer UEFA Cup Final Sergey Ponomarev Sergey Ponomarev

They’ve reached the same juncture twice before – in 2014 and 2012 – while they were memorably crowned Uefa Cup champions in 2008 with Dick Advocaat coached the side, which featured Andrey Arshavin, Viktor Fayzulin and Anatoliy Tymoschuk, to a 2-0 win over Rangers in Manchester. 

Current domestic form: 

The season is only four games old but the team have struggled early on. Though they are unbeaten, they’ve managed one win and three draws to sit in mid-table.

They failed to score in their first two games before putting three past Rostov and settling for a 1-1 draw against CSKA.

So, they’re improving.

Key players:

Zenit may not have Hulk anymore (he took the money and ran to China) but they still possess some super players.

Top of the list is Axel Witsel who is still at the club despite always being at the centre of transfer speculation. As Irish fans know, he can crop up with a goal though his main attributes are the tough tackles and ability to keep the ball. He’s Zenit’s midfield anchor.

Soccer - UEFA Champions League - Group H - Valencia v Zenit Saint Petersburg - Estadi de Mestalla Empics Sports Photography Ltd. Empics Sports Photography Ltd.

There are other familiar names in the squad. Argentine defender Ezequiel Garay has been there since 2014 while former Manchester City midfielder Javi Garcia and evergreen Portuguese attacker Danny is the captain. Ex-Chelsea player Yuri Zhirkov is in his second season at the club

Manager: 

71-year-old Mircea Lucescu has been around the block but this is a new environment for him. He has swapped Ukraine and Shakhtar Donetsk for Russia and Zenit after a 12-year stint and plenty of success with the former.

In total, there were 8 Ukrainian league titles and six Ukrainian Cups but his biggest moment was leading the side to the Uefa Cup in 2009.

He’s already been involved in a Russian final and picked up some silverware as Zenit beat CSKA in the Russian Super Cup back in July.

AZ Alkmaar

Pedigree: 

AZ finished fourth in the Eredivisie last term, a whopping 25 points behind winners PSV.

With Dutch football being a duopoly so often, the club from the north-west have found themselves on the fringes, consistently battling for qualification to the Champions League or Europa League.

Germany Soccer Bayern Van Gaal Associated Press Associated Press

Still, under Louis van Gaal, the club were crowned league winners in 2009 – not such a strange occurrence as they really should’ve won the championship two years previously but inexplicably lost a vital fixture on the final day of the season and finished third.

They did win the Dutch Cup in 2013.

Europe has been relatively tough for them but they have reached the quarter-finals of the Europa League three times in the last decade. In 2005, they made it through to the final four.

They qualified for the group stage with a 3-0 aggregate win over Serbian side Vojvodina.

Current domestic form: 

Just three games played and they’re in mid-table. They grabbed a win last weekend away to Utrecht and that leaves them on four points – already five behind leaders Feyenoord, PSV and Den Haag.

Key players:

Ron Vlaar is the stand-out name and returned to where it all started last year. The centre-back, who was a star of the 2014 World Cup, signed a fresh two-year deal with the club this summer.

Soccer - Barclays Premier League - Aston Villa v Burnley - Villa Park PA ARCHIVE IMAGES PA ARCHIVE IMAGES

His move to the Premier League coincided with Aston Villa’s rapid descent and after three years there, he returned to the club he joined at 11.

The club has lost top scorer Vincent Janssen to Tottenham but will hope that new signing Fred Friday and young gun Dabney dos Santos can step up and deliver.

Manager: 

John van den Brom has been in charge since 2014, when he replaced Marco van Basten. Previously, he’s been with Anderlecht where he won the Jupiler League in 2013.

He’s got solid experience with the Europa League, managing to qualify smaller Dutch clubs like ADO Den Haag and Vitesse, for the tournament in 2011 and 2012.

Maccabi Tel-Aviv

Pedigree:

The club had won three successive league titles but were pipped last season by Hapoel Beer Sheva – who ran Celtic very close in their Champions League play-off.

Europe has proven difficult down through the years but, last term, they reached the group stages of the Champions League for the first time in 11 years. Inevitably, it was a big step up and they struggled, scoring just once on their way to six defeats in a row.

Current domestic form: 

Only one league game played so far and it was a positive experience for Tel Aviv – a 3-1 home win over Hapoel Kfar Saba with Tal Ben Haim scoring twice.

Yep, that one.

Key players:

Soccer - FA Cup - Third Round - Queens Park Rangers v West Bromwich Albion - Loftus Road Andrew Matthews Andrew Matthews

Ben Haim, who played for a litany of Premier League clubs, is still going strong at 34 and is a key member of the side along with 36-year-old Yossi Benayoun who joined from Maccabi Haifa this year.

To keep it all very confusing, the team also boasts another Tal Ben Haim, who plays up front.

Manager: 

Shota Arveladze is a blast from the past.

Soccer - UEFA Champions League - Group E - Rangers v Manchester United Neal Simpson Neal Simpson

A gifted forward, the Georgian had stints with Ajax and Rangers before there was another superb spell with AZ, who he will now face in the group stages.

He began his coaching career as an assistant with the Dutch club before striking out on his own in Turkey.

He endured a difficult time with Trabzonspor where he stayed only a few months before he was named Tel Aviv boss this summer.

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