THE spectre of racism hangs over the resumption of the Europa League tonight, with Liverpool expressing their “major concern” that the last-32 match away to Zenit St Petersburg will be marred by racist abuse from the Russian team’s fans.
Liverpool officials are concerned about the welfare of the club’s players in light of a document published by a section of Zenit supporters in December, urging the team not to sign black or gay players. Liverpool managing director Ian Ayre has written to Uefa and Zenit to detail his concerns, and said players will be briefed about how to respond in the event they suffer abuse.
“The most we can do is make our feelings clear ahead of the game and hope that we get an adequate response and adequate support on the night,” Ayre said. “That’s about the most we can do at this stage. I’m certainly hopeful that the right people will take the right action to ensure it’s a game where we don’t have that type of incident.”
Zenit coach Luciano Spalletti distanced himself from the document yesterday, saying the judgment of those particular fans had been “erratic”.
“For me, skin has no colour,” Spalletti said. “The document, published on the internet, expresses the judgment of a separate group of fans but not of all supporters of Zenit and citizens of St Petersburg.”
Zenit are among a raft of eastern European teams in the last 32 who have yet to resume their domestic league campaigns after the winter break, likely leaving them rusty.
Sparta Prague face the same problem ahead of their match against Chelsea, the European champions, who dropped into the Europa League after finishing third in their Champions League group.
Chelsea are expected to take the competition seriously as it is one of only two realistic opportunities for silverware this season. “It is true the Europa League is not the same as the Champions League because that is the top, but the Europa League is a big competition, an important competition, and now we have the chance to win it,” Chelsea defender Cesar Azpilicueta said.
Chelsea captain John Terry has travelled to the Czech Republic despite missing the 4-1 league win over Wigan on Saturday with a knee injury, while goalkeeper Petr Cech has a hairline fracture of the little finger on his left hand but should still play against his former club. “For them, it will be the biggest game of their careers,” said Cech, “so that’s a danger.”
In other matches, Tottenham host Lyon and Newcastle United welcome Ukrainian side Metalist Kharkiv.