LIVERPOOL may be stationed in ‘the Venice of Russia’ but there is little romance attached to their Valentine’s Day outing in St Petersburg.
Off the pitch, the ugly spectre of racism hangs over the Reds’ Europa League last 32 first leg tie at the Petrovsky Stadium.
On it, a season is on the line tonight as Brendan Rodgers’ side brave the hostile atmosphere on a mission to keep their hopes of silverware alive against Russian champions Zenit.
With Monday night’s Premier League defeat to West Brom effectively wrecking any hopes of launching a push for Champions League qualification, the Reds’ European campaign has taken on added significance.
Rodgers rotated his squad in order to guide Liverpool into the knockout stages, but the identity of those who took a stroll through the luxurious Grand Hotel Europe last night underlined a change of policy.
The ineligible duo of Daniel Sturridge and Philippe Coutinho were the only stars left on Merseyside with the boss ready to put out the likes of Luis Suarez and Steven Gerrard in order to ensure Liverpool are in a position to finish the job off at Anfield next Thursday night.
Rodgers insists Sunday’s visit of his former club Swansea City in the league won’t influence his selection tonight.
“My only consideration is for this game,” he said.
“We put a lot of work into this competition in the early part of the season. I always had it in my mind that when we qualified we would have a really good go at trying to do well in this competition.
“It’s the last cup competition we have to play for and it’s certainly very important for us.
“This was always a competition we wanted to do well in, even before we went out of the two domestic cups.
“We went out of the League Cup earlier in the season when we had a young team playing and obviously I made changes in the FA Cup game we lost. But against Zenit we will have a strong team playing.
“When you have a two-legged tie, you always hope you are in contention going into the return leg. We know it’s going to be a difficult game, but we want a positive scoreline to take back to Anfield. That’s the most critical factor.
“This is a cup this football club has won before. We take pride in being a winning club at Liverpool and that’s something we want to continue this season.
“Between now and May we want to give everything we can in the Premier League and in the Europa League to make this a successful season for us.”
Zenit, who are coached by Italian Luciano Spalletti, are bankrolled by Gazprom, the world’s biggest extractor of natural gas.
Last summer they splashed out an eye-watering 90million Euros on Brazilian striker Hulk from Porto and Belgian midfielder Axel Witsel from Benfica.
So far they have had little return on that investment with Zenit third in the Russian Premier League, five points adrift of leaders CSKA Moscow.
They dropped into the Europa League after finishing below Malaga and AC Milan in their Champions League group.
“We know the opponents are the Russian champions and a very strong team,” said Rodgers.
“Their coach has done very well – winning two consecutive titles. They play an offensive game – it’s a 4-3-3 with one pivoting player.
“They have attacking qualities and have some dangerous players. We know it’s going to be a difficult game but we want to progress in the tournament.”
One factor in Liverpool’s favour tonight is the fact that Zenit haven’t played competitively since a 1-1 draw at home to Anzhi on December 10.
After a lengthy winter break, the Russian league season doesn’t get under way again until March 9.
That has made scouting Zenit problematic but Rodgers has had Spalletti’s men watched in a series of friendly fixtures.
“It’s certainly something that may not be to their advantage,” Rodgers added.
“They have played five games and had a training camp since their season finished in December. We have been to watch those games and had them covered.
“Even though they were only friendlies, it was important for us to do our homework and analyse them and see where they’re at in terms of their fitness.
“It’s one where I don’t think their fitness will be too affected, but certainly there is no doubt when you’ve not had competitive football, sometimes those first couple of games back can be difficult. We hope we can benefit from that.”
Liverpool opted to train at Melwood before flying out yesterday in a bid to avoid the icy conditions.
As it turned out, they swapped Merseyside’s freezing blizzard for the clear skies of St Petersburg where, at minus two degrees, it was only marginally colder.
“We were given an indication that the pitch here because of the weather conditions would be difficult to train on,” Rodgers explained.
“But when we left Liverpool this morning it was probably worse. It was more like Russia than Liverpool!
“But the players have trained well and it hasn’t affected our preparations. We will be ready for it.”