This year's UEFA Europa League group stages feature a number of talented teams who have the quality to compete in the Champions League. Our own favorite side is one of them, or I would like to believe as much after seeing our performance against Arsenal. Atletico Madrid and Udinese, two sides who play each other today, also fit the bill. And then there's Rubin Kazan, Tottenham's group-mates and opponents on Thursday.
You know the story by now. They've competed with teams in Russia that have more money, better stadiums and bigger markets. They've beaten Barcelona. They keep their shape brilliantly and they have a few players who can create as well. They're a high-quality side and our second choice team will be underdogs against their first choice team.
They also don't have to rest anyone for league matches. As I noted earlier in the strength of squad debate post, there are no consequences for losing the rest of their RPL matches, besides morale. Rubin is locked into their position in the RPL Championship Group in the spring. They cannot fall below the top eight and their seed does not matter. They will play their best team at White Hart Lane tonight.
What is that best team, though? It's not entirely clear. Mostly because I can't read Russian to save my life and all of the English language sources I've read have been no help at all. I know what their best lineup looks like in either a 4-2-3-1 or 4-4-2 when everyone is healthy, but I can't tell if everyone is healthy.
For instance, Alan Kasaev started behind a striker in a 4-2-3-1 against PAOK Salonika and has been a first choice player for them in the past, but he hasn't been in the lineup since. I have no idea whether this has to do with fitness concerns or if he's just been dropped for poor form. I know he hasn't been at his best lately, but I've been impressed when I've watched him in the past.
Also not necessarily first choice, but very talented is Obafemi Martins, who you probably remember for his time in the Premier League. I have been able to gather through English language sources that Paraguayan international striker Nelson Valdez is questionable to start due to fitness concerns, meaning it's likely that Martins gets a run-out. He's not the best technician or most composed finisher in the world, but he's an insane, Olympic-quality athlete who will cause problems for a makeshift back line.
Out wide, should they both start as expected, Igor Lebedenko and Gökdeniz Karadeniz provide a great combination of tactical awareness, technical quality, and work rate. Neither is exceptionally fast or creative, but they are very solid players. For those most up on the Premier League, think poor man's versions of Park Ji-Sung and Dirk Kuyt.
Christian Noboa and Bibras Natkho will likely hold things down in the middle of the pitch, and they make up a great creator/destroyer combo. Noboa has the ability to surge forward and get out wide, pulling markers all over the pitch, while Natkho balances out his defensive qualities with a pretty wicked shot. They're obviously not anywhere near the quality of Luka Modric and Scott Parker, but they should probably win a midfield battle against Tom Carroll and Jake Livermore.
The back line is very good, and the central defense pairing of Cesar Navas and Salvatore Bocchetti is one of the most underrated in all of world football. The good news for us is that the man behind them is a serious liability. Sergey Ryzhikov is absolute pants. The fact that he's appeared well over 100 times for the club is astonishing. If Rubin were able to secure a top class keeper, they'd be arguably the best team in Russia and they would compete for the Champions League knockout stages every year. This might sound harsh, but I'm really not joking or exaggerating here. He's like Gomes without the occasional stand on his head saves. Pants.
Now, onto us! I'm not sure how strong of a team Harry Redknapp is going to select for the match. In the poll on the above-linked post, I voted for 'mostly first team', just because I don't rate Blackburn Rovers at all. Having said that, I think Harry is going to play the kids...and Pav. Oh, Pav.
There's some great news, though. All of Aaron Lennon, Vedran Corluka and Sandro are expected to be in the 18. I don't know about Steven Pienaar or Danny Rose, but I'm going to say Rose is in the team because I feel like it. BAE needs a rest anyway.
Projected Tottenham Hotspur Lineup (4-4-1-1): Cudicini; Rose, Bassong, Kaboul, Corluka; Iago, Carroll, Livermore, Lennon; dos Santos; Pavlyuchenko
Projected Rubin Kazan Lineup (4-4-2): Ryzhikov; Kuzmin, Bocchetti, Navas, Sharonov; Lebedenko, Noboa, Natkho, Karadeniz; Martins, Valdez
Prediction: 1-1 draw
You can find the game on DirecTV Soccer in the USA, ITV 4 in the UK, and apparently on some weird channel in Canada. Check your local listings on that, Canadians. It's also on ESPN Australia in Kangaroo land and Al-Jazeera in the Middle East, if you live in either of those places. I'm not giving anyone crap for "alternative means" today. Gamethread up around 2:00 pm ET/7:00 pm BST.