The Champions League rolls on Wednesday with tough tests for the injury-hit Arsenal and Zenit St. Petersburg against AC Milan and Portuguese powerhouse Benfica.
The Zenit-Benfica match -- if allowed to go on after a pitch inspection -- will kick-off earlier than usual due to the Russian time zone, with coverage beginning at noon EST on FOX Soccer . The game may be postponed due to the arctic conditions currently gripping Russia.
AC Milan-Arsenal follows at the regularly scheduled time 2:30 p.m. EST. As always, every Champions League and Europa League match is covered in real time on Twitter @FOXSoccerTrax .
If there ever was a chance for Milan to break its English jinx, this appears to be it.
On paper, Milan have to be considered the favorites against a stuttering Arsenal side that has been very vulnerable at the back and far too reliant on striker Robin van Persie. There's little argument that this is the poorest Arsenal side in recent memory, while AC Milan are currently holding off Juventus for Serie A's top spot . They are loaded with attacking talent and are likely to run Zlatan Ibrahimovic and Robinho right down Arsenal's laughably porous back line.
And yet, things aren't that simple. History and psychology play a larger part in these matches than teams would like to admit, and the pressure is likely to be on the Italians -- not the English giants -- when they battle Wednesday evening.
Arsenal's only been knocked out of an elimination round by an Italian team once in their history: that was at the hands of Milan in the 1995 Super Cup. They have never been eliminated at this stage by an Italian side in the Champions League and their record at the San Siro is excellent. Four years ago, they beat Milan 2-0 to send the Italians packing at this very stage.
In fact, Milan have been hooked out at this stage the last three times by English clubs and have been held off the scoring sheet in five out of six of those games. More ignominiously, Milan were also held scoreless by now-bankrupt Portsmouth in the Europa League back in 2009. The last time Milan got past an English side was when they downed Liverpool to hoist the 2007 trophy.
Despite the fact that the Gunners will be missing Per Mertesacker (ankle) and are without long-term absentee Jack Wilshere, they will be able to field emerging starlet Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain alongside van Persie, and bring old hero Thierry Henry off the bench in what is expected to be his final game for the club. Henry, on loan from the New York Red Bulls, was a curious and much-questioned winter addition who has paid off. He has scored two critical goals for the team, one that kept them in the FA Cup and another that sealed them a vital win over Sunderland. Henry has proven particularly potent at the San Siro in the past, leading the Gunners past Inter 5-1 in their 2003 rout.
Arsenal, mind you, are capable of tossing games away. Their defense remains particularly vulnerable to set pieces, and while Wojciech Szczesny has been heroic in the net, the men in front of him too often take naps. Laurent Koscielny has been particularly absent-minded, though with Bacary Sagna and Thomas Vermaelen both available, Arsenal should be able to get the ball away down the flanks.
Either way you slice it, this is a major test for both teams. Arsenal have no hopes of winning the Premier League this season and are in a dogfight just to secure a slot for next year's Champions League. Milan are eager to prove that they are back and, moreover, that Italian football has progressed. If the current best side in Italy cannot take down a sagging English side, what does that say about Serie A? Nothing good at all.
Zenit will play host to streaking Benfica in the early match. UEFA has passed the field, but with temperatures in St. Petersburg expected to be just over 0ºF at kick-off, there are doubts as to whether the game will be played as scheduled. That decision will come one hour before kick-off.
Should the game start, Zenit will also have to cope with a massive injury list that includes their effective talisman, Danny.
The Russians are in bad shape: seven players are absent for the game but not one has been as instrumental as the Portuguese playmaker. Danny tore his knee ligaments last week in practice and will miss the next eight months. With him, Zenit were genuinely tough to handle; without him, it's an open question if they can even mount a concerted attack.
Also questionable for the game is experienced keeper Vyacheslav Malafeev and defender Domenico Criscito. The former hopes to shake off a calf injury and continue his three game spotless streak; the latter is reported to have come down with food poisoning and is a late scratch.
Benfica are unbeaten in Portuguese play and currently sit five points clear of arch-rivals Porto. Pablo Aimar has pulled the strings for a team that gets scoring out of every position on the field, with Axel Witsel, Rodrigo, Javier Saviola and Oscar Cardozo all dangerous for Jorge Jesus' men.
But while Benfica look better on paper, Zenit's Petrovsky Stadium is a tough place to play. Compact and close, Benfica is likely to have to deal with Zenit's notoriously raucous fans. In fact, the Russian club was fined after crowd trouble interrupted their group match against APOEL this year and many eyes will be on the policing for the game.