Champions League - Zenit edge Benfica in chiller
Wed, 15 Feb 19:05:00 2012
Two goalkeeping errors from Yuri Zhevnov allowed Benfica to score two away goals as Zenit St Petersburg won 3-2 in their Champions League last-16 first leg in freezing conditions at the Petrovskiy Stadium.
A pair of near-identical howlers from reserve keeper Zhevnov allowed Maxi Pereira and Oscar Cardozo to finish from close range, but Zenit - who were by far the better side - scored fine goals through Roman Shirokov and Sergei Semak, with Shirokov adding his second to win it seconds after the visitors levelled at 2-2.
While Zenit won the match they will be praying for the return of regular number one Vyacheslav Malafeev for the second leg in three weeks: he was injured and, had he been fit, the Russians may well have won comfortably and not conceded the two away goals that will give Jorge Jesus's side confidence in Lisbon.
Zhevnov only really had two things to do all game and he fluffed his lines twice: spilling a weak Cardozo free-kick into Maxi’s path to give Benfica the lead and, with his side leading 2-1 and dominating, doing likewise from Nicolas Gaitan’s daisy-cutter to allow Cardozo an easy finish.
Fortunately for his team-mates though his late mistake was immediately matched at the other end when Maxi failed to clear his lines, allowing Shirokov to get his fifth goal in seven Champions League matches.
The pitch may have passed a pre-match inspection but it was icy and bobbly, the encounter starting somewhat tentatively as the visitors grew accustomed to the conditions, while the hosts shook off the cobwebs of their winter break.
A couple of hefty challenges from Benfica’s Luisao and ex-Porto destroyer Bruno Alves drew early bookings - the latter foul ending Rodrigo’s match early as he took a heavy blow to the hip - but it was almost midway through the half before a genuine opportunity arose.
That chance, a Benfica free-kick on the edge of the box when Axel Witsel was brought down by fellow Belgian Nicolas Lombaerts, yielded the opening goal: Cardozo’s weak free-kick was tamely batted out by Zhevnov, with Maxi on hand to tap home the loose ball.
An equaliser soon followed and it was as classy as the opener was scrappy: on 26 minutes Tomas Hubocan bombarded down the left before angling a clever low cross that Shirokov met with a fine first-time side-footed finish, adjusting his body superbly as he rolled the finish inside the bottom right corner.
The match developed into a cat-and-mouse affair, as Benfica sat deeper than their hosts, who attacked but were prone on the counter, particularly with Zhevnov’s tendency to make rash decisions, although Alves - the only Portuguese player on the pitch with Zenit team-mate Danny injured - was imperious as ever at the back.
Zenit almost got a second just before the break when, after a right-wing cross caused havoc in the Benfica box, Konstantin Zyryanov made the poor decision to flash a cut-back across goal with goalkeeper Artur stranded and the net gaping.
The half-time temperature dropped to -15 Celsius, the only change an attacking move by Luciano Spalletti as veteran playmaker Semak came on for Zyryanov.
Initially it had little effect though as, much like in the first half, the earlier stages were cagey and low on creativity.
The first half-chance was a fortuitous one, Gaitan capitalising on sloppy play from Hubocan but curling his finish wide from a narrow angle, while substitute Pablo Aimar wasted some free-kicks form promising positions.
Things started to open up in the last 25 minutes or so though, as substitute Vladimir Bystrov fired just over, while Cardozo’s deflected effort asked questions of Belarusian Zhevnov.
In the end Spalletti’s subs paid off as they combined for what should have proved the winner on the night. It all started with a delightful backheel from Kerzhakov to keep the ball in play on the right wing, Bystrov meeting his flick with an inviting low cross that - with his back to goal - Semak backeeled through his marker and inside the far post.
It was an excellent goal - entirely made in Russia - and one that prompted Zenit to chase a third as they attempted to add a two-goal cushion to Benfica’s away goal.
Zhevnov, meanwhile, had less and less to do, and when the simplest of tasks was asked of him - to gather an 87th-minute ball that he initially claimed - he blew it in style, somehow letting the ball out of his grasp and into the path of a delighted Cardozo.
The joy did not last long as, straight from kick-off, the left-footed Maxi refused to use his right to clear the ball, knocking it tamely off his advancing goalkeeper and into the path of midfielder Shirokov, who claimed victory with another cool finish from a tight angle.Reda Maher - @Reda_Eurosport / Eurosport