Zenit edge Benfica in frosty thriller
Zenit St Petersburg secured a narrow advantage in their UEFA Champions League last-16 tie against Benfica as Roman Shirokov's brace helped the hosts to a hard-fought 3-2 win at a frigid Stadion Petrovskiy.
With temperatures hovering around the minus-ten degrees centigrade mark, the encounter was a punishing one for both sets of players, but it was the Portuguese visitors who settled first as they took a 21st-minute lead through Maxi Pereira after an error by Zenit goalkeeper Yuri Zhevnov.
Zenit, however, were not about to roll over in their first ever appearance in the knockout stage of the Champions League, and pulled level in the 27th minute through Shirokov's well-executed volley before taking the lead after the break when Sergei Semak rounded off a brilliant team goal.
Benfica looked to have snatched a draw in the 87th minute when another Zhevnov howler allowed Oscar Cardozo to tap in from close range, but just two minutes later Benfica were caught dwelling at the back to allow Shirokov in for his fifth Champions League goal of the season.
"It was a nervous match," Zenit manager Luciano Spalletti said. "My players showed really good skill. They showed a lot of heart to win the match in such a grave situation. However they did exactly what we decided to do ahead of the match. We won deservedly tonight."
The visitors' manager Jorge Jesus said he was upset with the result, and was expecting an even tougher battle in the second leg. "It was really tough to play here," he said. "We allowed Zenit to score three goals, that means we defended poorly this evening. It's a pity. But nothing is finished yet. The place in the next round will be decided in the return match. I think it will be even tougher."
The freezing conditions made for a slow opening to the match, but all that changed in the 21st minute when Benfica took the lead. Bruno Cesar won a free-kick for his side on the edge of the area, and after Zhevnov failed to parry Cardozo's effort to safety, Maxi Pereira had the simplest of tasks to tap the ball into the net.
The goal stung the hosts into life, and within a minute they were almost level when Alexander Kerzhakov saw his effort following a goalmouth scramble saved by the legs of Artur. Benfica survived that scare but they were not so fortunate after 27 minutes when a much-improved Zenit pulled level, Tomas Hubocan sent over an inviting cross from the left and Shirokov did superbly to guide in a first-time volley.
The tempo went out of the game after the goals went in, with the only other chance before the interval arriving in the 37th minute when Cardozo's low effort from 20 yards was gathered by Zhevnov.
The chances remained thin on the ground deep into the second half, but all that changed in the 71st minute when Zenit struck a goal of true quality. A hopeful ball forward was kept alive brilliantly by Kerzhakov's flick from the byline to Vladimir Bystrov, whose volley helped the ball into the six-yard box where fellow substitute Semak arrived on cue to finish with a cool backheel on the turn.
Zenit's Portuguese defender Bruno Alves then saw a free-kick hit the wall and sail just over as the hosts - who have never lost to a side from Portugal at home - sought to put themselves even more comfortably in the driving seat. After 79 minutes Kerzhakov was presented with the chance to centre the ball for a team-mate when he was left alone on the right of the six-yard box, but instead he shot wastefully into the side-netting.
With time running out Benfica looked to have snatched a draw when Zhevnov was again found wanting between the sticks, this time failing to hold Nicolas Gaitan's weak effort and Cardoza hungrily lapped up the rebound.
But there was still time for more drama, and with a minute remaining Maxi Pereira inexplicably mis-controlled the ball in the area as he attempted to intercept a cross, and Shirokov sprang onto the loose ball to finish coolly past Artur and give Zenit the slenderest of leads heading into the return leg in Lisbon on 6 March.