ST PETERSBURG at this time of year is as cold as it is beautiful.
So freezing in fact that eunuch brass monkeys can be seen walking across the frozen rivers which criss-cross this wonderful city.
It plunged to minus-22 in the afternoon yesterday – and it felt it. It was not weather to be wearing a T-shirt, which made you wonder what Scott Brown would do this evening given his hatred of long sleeves.
Ah, but the Krestovsky Stadium, all £1.5billion of it, has a roof and inside the arena there is even controlled temperature which, believe it or not, makes it warm for the supporters.
It will be taps aff tonight, which will take a bit of doing considering how many layers the Celtic supporters will be wearing if they are to make the journey without hypothermia setting in.
This city truly is something to behold – and it is where Brendan Rodgers’s team will attempt to do what no Celtic side has achieved since 2004 when Alan Thompson scored the only goal of a two-legged tie which saw David Marshall perform heroics at Camp Nou as Barcelona were thwarted.
That was the last time the club got through a knock-out stage of European competition and with a 1-0 lead to defend here in Russia, they have every chance of doing just that.
But it won’t be easy. Zenit St Petersburg were undercooked last week after a two-month winter break – as if it’s now spring – and a further week of training had done the players, by every account, a world of good.
Roberto Mancini, the Zenit manager, certainly appeared confident – he doesn’t really do self-doubt – that Celtic will face a different team than the one which was very much second best in Glasgow.
The Italian said: “The players are ready. We won’t change a lot because they are in good form. For me, it’s not so important to change the
players, what we must do is change the result.
“We won all our group matches in the Europa League this season, that is true, but group games are always different to playing twice in a knock-out match.
“However, I am confident that we can have a good game. We will go into this fully concentrated and we shall play without pressure which is
going to be important.
“We didn’t play our usual game last week but that is normal, it had to be expected. In the end, I thought we played an okay game.
“We made a mistake when we conceded a goal, but we were two months without a competitive game and that was our biggest problem – to play in such a big match after such a long time off.
“We will be better after some more days of training. I believe we have the same chance as Celtic to go through.
“They are a strong team. Olivier Ntcham had a very good game and Scott Brown is the heart of this Celtic team. But in general, the whole of their side worked very well against us.”
Celtic won’t sit back because of two things. Scoring one away goal means Zenit must get three and, to be frank, playing a defensive game is not what Rodgers is all about. Plus, his team aren’t particularly good at it.
When Mancini was asked if he felt Celtic would attack from the start, he said: “Well, that depends on us. If we are too strong for Celtic, they may play more defensively and sit further in midfield.
“Celtic will try to play their normal game and will rely on their qualities, as they did last week. We knew Celtic were a good team. The players are very good – as is their manager. I wasn’t surprised about how they played at all, but we will be ready for them.”
And as for suggestions that this Italian football legend has began talks with former AC Milan defender Alessandro Costacurta, who works for the country’s FA, about him taking charge of the national team, Mancini was having none of it.
He said: “I have never spoken to Allesandro Costacurta about this. Never. I have heard all of these rumours but none of it is true.
“My head is in this game and this season. After that, everything can change when it gets to the end of the season. But at this moment, that is not a priority, Celtic is my priority, the game tomorrow night, and beyond that the 10 games we have in the [Russian] championship.”
Igor Smalnikov, the Zenit defender, will again have the unenviable task of marking Kieran Tierney but he shared his manager’s belief that five days spent in Italy in between the two legs would work for them this evening.
He said: “We managed to compete with Celtic in the second half and we were unfortunate to lose near the end of the game.
“Rome was very useful. We trained every day, it was very intense, but we enjoyed it. It was important and there was also a chance to spend some time with the families.
“The problem last week wasn’t our fitness, because we had done our preparation. But it was the first game back for us and you could see Celtic have started their season well and were in better physical shape.
“They started the game very quickly and they gave us problems. We are at home now and we are going to show a completely different performance. The new pitch is perfect. It’s our home and I hope it will be a different game to last week and we manage to win.”
It should be fun.