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Zenit, CSKA kick off 2009 with UEFA Cup tests

MOSCOW, February 18 (RIA Novosti) - Zenit St. Petersburg face Germany`s Stuttgart and CSKA Moscow take on England`s Aston Villa in the UEFA Cup Round of 32 in the first games of the season for the Russian clubs.

Both Russian teams have lifted the trophy in recent years, CSKA in 2005 and Zenit last May. CSKA negotiated the tournament`s group stages in style, winning all of their four matches, while Zenit dropped down to the competition after finishing third in their Champions League group behind Juventus and Real Madrid.

The Russian domestic season ended last November, and the two sides last played a competitive match in early December, CSKA beating French club Nancy 4-3 away from home, and Zenit losing 3-0 to Real Madrid in Spain.

CSKA travel to Birmingham, England, for the first leg to face an in-form Aston Villa side lying in third place in the English Premier League. Enjoying their best season for years, the 1982 European champions are in with a real chance of breaking the seemingly eternal domination of English soccer`s big four.

The game will be the first in charge for CSKA`s new Brazilian coach, Zico. The legendary midfielder took over at the club at the end of last year, moving from Uzbekistan`s Bunyodkor after Valery Gazzayev quit the former Red Army club.

"Aston Villa are playing at home, in front of their own supporters," Zico told Sovetski Sport. "Our task is the same as always though. To get through to the next round. It is important to play well in England and, it goes without saying, in Moscow."

"We are sure of our strength, and we`ll try to neutralize those Aston Villa players who have been in such good form recently. It will be tough for us taking into account that the team has just finished its break and hasn`t got into the rhythm of official matches, but I hope these circumstances won`t affect, in essence, our game," the Brazilian also told the Sport Den Za Dnyem paper.

Zenit, facing life without Andrei Arshavin after the forward`s recent move to Arsenal, will be hoping that the upcoming season will see the side shake off the lethargy that saw them finish fifth in the domestic league and fail to seriously challenge for a place in the Champions League play-off rounds.

"I`m in a fighting mood," new signing Igor Semshov, bought from Dynamo Moscow in the close season, told Sport Express. "Wednesday is the start of a new season. Official matches are an entirely different thing from friendlies."

Zenit saw off German clubs Bayer Leverkusen and Bayern Munich on the way to last year`s UEFA Cup final, but Semshov was not writing off Wednesday evening`s opponents.

"We are all aware that Stuttgart have been scoring a lot of late and also letting a lot in," said Semshov. "They are a solid team."

The Russian international also said he hoped that his first game at Zenit`s Petrovsky stadium would see the home fans in good voice.

"I am counting on the support of the fans for the whole 90 minutes, counting on them to drive us on, as is always the case in Petersburg," he said.

Zenit vs Stuttgart kicks off at 8.15 p.m. (17:15 GMT). Aston Villa vs CSKA starts at 19:00 GMT (10:00 p.m. Moscow time). The CSKA game will be shown live on Russia`s Sport channel.

The return legs are on February 26.

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