Del Piero returns to face Zenit as Juventus rejoin the European elite

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The Independent Online

Juventus striker Alessandro Del Piero is expected to return to the starting line-up for tonight's Champions League game at home to Zenit St Petersburg having been left on the bench at the weekend.

Juve, who beat Artmedia Bratislava in qualifying, are back in the group stages of Europe's premier club competition having missed out in the past two seasons following their 2006 demotion for match-fixing.

Del Piero played in the 1996 final when the Turin club won the second of their two European Cups and the 33-year-old's Champions League experience should come in handy for their opening Group H game against the Russian champions.

Coach Claudio Ranieri, the former Chelsea manager, played close-season signing Amauri and Vincenzo Iaquinta up front in Sunday's 1-0 win over Udinese with Del Piero and David Trezeguet coming on as substitutes.

Ranieri though has reassured Del Piero that his omission was nothing to worry about as he tries out different striking pairs.

"I have not changed my mind about him, I know that he is a great champion," Ranieri said. "We signed Amauri because he can play with all three of our forwards."

Zenit warmed up for their Champions League debut by crushing Terek Grozny 4-1 in the Russian Premier League at the weekend. The win lifted the Russian champions to seventh place, 14 points behind leaders Rubin Kazan but with a game in hand.

Russia midfielder Roman Shirokov will sit out tonight's match with a calf injury, the Uefa Cup winners said.

Belgium defender Nicolas Lombaerts, still recovering after tearing knee ligaments in March, will also miss the trip along with Turkey striker Fatih Tekke, Ukraine international Olexander Gorshkov, South Korea's Li Ho and Alexei Ionov.

Zenit coach Dick Advocaat rested Russian internationals Andrei Arshavin and Konstantin Zyryanov as well as Croatia defender Ivica Krizanac in the second half against Terek and they are likely to return against Juve.

Advocaat, whose side beat European Cup holders Manchester United 2-1 in last month's Super Cup, said he was looking forward to his team's debut in the Champions League.

"After winning the Uefa Cup and the European Super Cup we want to test ourselves against the best teams in Europe," the Dutchman said. "Playing in the Champions League is a new experience for us and we can't wait to get going.

"Our group is tough but, in principle, this is the Champions League and if you want to do well you have to expect to face and beat teams like Manchester United and Juventus," Advocaat added. "So for me it's not a problem, it's a challenge.

"If they have their day, which we mustn't allow, then Juventus can beat anyone, but I have faith that Zenit can damage some teams," Advocaat said. "I think what we showed last season, coming so far and even winning the Uefa Cup, was an incredible achievement but I think we still must be considered as an outsider for the tournament.

"Even in our group, Real Madrid and Juventus will be seen as the teams to beat while we and BATE Borisov will be viewed by everyone as fighting for third or fourth place."

In the other Group H game Real Madrid coach Bernd Schuster is already looking beyond the Champions League group stage in his mission to raise the nine-time champions back to the summit of the European game.

Six coaches have failed before him and in the past four seasons the Spaniards haven't even progressed beyond the last 16.

Madrid's journey to May's final in Rome begins against BATE, the Belarusians making their Champions League debut, in one of eight matches on the second night of the group stage.

"If we have just a little more luck we can get past the first knockout round without any problems," Schuster said.

Defender Fabio Cannavaro could make his first appearance of the season after missing Italy's European Championship campaign with an ankle injury.

The defence must tighten up after leaking four goals in the first two La Liga games for just one victory. "As a defender I am not happy to concede so many goals, especially when playing at home," Christoph Metzelder said. "We know we have problems defending set pieces, but we are working on improving. We are only two weeks into the season and some of us had very little time to get back into rhythm after the Euro [2008], but we will soon be at 100 per cent and we will iron out the kinks."

Juventus (probable, 4-4-2): Buffon; Grygera, Mellberg, Chiellini, Molinaro; Camoranesi, Sissoko, Poulsen, Nedved; Trezeguet, Del Piero.

Zenit St Petersburg (probable, 4-4-2): Malafeyev; Anyukov, Krizanac, Puygrenier, Sirl; Zyryanov, Denisov, Tymoschuk, Arshavin; Pogrebnyak, Danny.

Referee: F De Bleeckere (Belgium).

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