UEFA Champions League
Tuesday 16 September 2014
UEFA Champions League – Group C: Match Day 1
Benfica 0-2 Zenit St. Petersburg
For the line-ups, click here
In what had been billed as a clash between two in-form sides, Zenit St. Petersburg pulled off a result that some casual observers certainly considered a surprise, taking the game to As Águias in a contest that was effectively over after little more than 20 minutes.
Many fans of this most prestigious of Portuguese clubs would have been less surprised by the outcome as it must have confirmed some of their worst fears regarding their status in the contemporary European hierarchy. Indeed, the Zenit line-up would have been very familiar to them as it featured three former players – Axel Witsel, Javi García and the summer departure Ezequiel Garay – who all left Benfica for bigger contracts, with two of them – Witsel and Garay – having headed directly to Russia. The visitors also fielded two prominent attacking threats in Hulk and Danny (who, owing to his past call-ups to the Portuguese national side, was certainly no stranger to the crowd), both former employees of fierce rivals Porto, a side who just over three years ago were also successfully managed by André Villas-Boas.
Thus, the home fans knew what they were up against from the oft and any lingering sense of foreboding was heightened no more than five minutes after the kick-off. Defensive gaps were easily exploited by Shatov who held off several challenges to slip through Hulk who ran into space just inside the area and made his left-footed curler around Artur look effortless. This subdued the half-full stadium and the atmosphere struggled to recover throughout the opening stages, with the Benfiquistas only really finding their voices to express their discontent with proceedings and to boo certain opponents. Hulk was the target of most of their ire, which was surely as much to do with his play as it was his Porto links as he was frequently on the ball looking, as he often does, like he was going to tear through the porous opposition back line every time he went forward.
Any hopes that they would get back into the match were dealt a severe blow in the 18th minute as again their defence was left standing with Danny latching onto Shatov’s through-ball before being blocked off by Artur who he was almost certainly going to round and score past. The referee had no option but to send off the goalkeeper, with the promising young Brazilian Talisca being sacrificed for the 36 year-old Paulo Lopes who took up his position being the sticks to make a very rare first-team appearance. While he will have been relieved to see the resulting free-kick from Hulk go narrowly wide due to a deflection, he still was not to have a touch before Zenit’s second goal. Indeed, the subsequent corner was floated in and headed goalwards by Witsel whose effort was over the line before Lopes could claw it out. A short pause of purgatory followed before the referee’s confirmation but when it came the Belgian opted to follow the contemporary trend of players looking sheepish and reluctant to celebrate a goal against former employers, which did not stop his team-mates mobbing him.
For the remaining 70 minutes, though Benfica did come back into the game, having sporadic spells of dominating possession and enough chances that, if listed, would give the impression that they could have been on level terms, the events of the first 20 minutes somewhat distorted the subsequent play. Indeed, Zenit could probably have also scored more goals but given their numerical advantages on the field and the scoreboard, did not have to play with the same intensity as they began with and thus sometimes took their collective foot off the pedal but did enough to run out victors.
Nevertheless, for the completists out there, Benfica’s two best chances came in the second half, firstly from a 59th-minute free-kick from the Argentine Enzo Pérez that was met by a powerful header from Luisão and forced Lodygin into a diving double-handed save as the ball headed for the top corner. An even better chance came just over five minutes later when a through-ball deflected off the Belgian defender Lombaerts into the path of Lima, who was in space and got away a quick shot that hit Lodygin’s legs and was subsequently cleared from the goalmouth.
Zenit had a few more opportunities but with the exception of a fearsome Hulk effort that came directly after the Lima effort, these can be discussed in the section below.
Having been placed on the bench for Zenit’s last two league games, Salomón Rondón returned to the line-up but as an attacking threat could not compete with the physical prowess of Hulk nor the incisiveness and vision of both Shatov and Danny. He was a peripheral figure for the majority of his 75 minutes on the field, often awaiting crosses and through-balls that never came and which sometimes bypassed him altogether. Arguably, his most important contribution to the first half was blocking off a defender from sticking out a foot to intercept Shatov’s cutting through-ball that slid forwards to Danny for the red-card incident. Whether the defender would have managed to halt the ball’s path without the Caracas-born striker there is debatable, but if that is excluded then his most eye-catching moments in this half were a series of clashes with Maxi Pereira that culminated with the notoriously charming Uruguayan blocking him off with a combination of arm and elbow.
In the second half, Rondón was involved in two potential goal incidents, one of which was more an opportunity for Hulk but the second was very much his to bury, something he not only was unable to do but which cast a shadow over his exit from the field just a few minutes afterwards.
Hulk’s effort came on 61 minutes, when he received a patented piercing pass from Shatov and struck a left-footed shot from a narrow angle on the left that Lopes got a touch to as it bounced off the far post and almost back into the path of Rondón but a defender managed to hook it away before he could get to it.
As for Rondón’s gilt-edged opportunity, it came after 71 minutes with him getting on to a loose ball in midfield, passing short to Danny and running forward to receive a through-ball in the area, one-on-one with Lopes. However, he perhaps shaped his body just a little excessively as he was to watch his right-footed shot bend around not only the goalkeeper but also the far post, thus failing to finally kill off the game once and for all. When he was substituted shortly afterwards, his dejection and slumped demeanour were there for all to see.
Admittedly, too much can be made of incidents such as this as, despite what Youtube highlight reels may suggest, all of the greatest players in the world regularly miss opportunities that their inflated reputations and media advocates would have us believe that they would never fail to convert. However, after a blistering start to his Zenit career that began back in February, he has now not found the net in five games (three with Zenit, two with Venezuela) and he has had at least a few good chances to do so. While it is more than likely he will get back to scoring ways soon, he can never get too complacent with the likes of Kerzhakov and now even Arshavin waiting in the wings. Having transferred from Rubin Kazan for a considerable sum while approaching what will ideally be the peak years of his career, he is doubtless Zenit’s number one out-and-out striker. However, as he was not signed by Villas-Boas he can not feel quite so assured of a starting place as much as he would like, so certainly needs to get back to burying chances like the one in this match as often as possible.
Additional Match Trivia
Despite this being Europe’s premier competition, altogether there were actually 12 South Americans in the starting line-ups: 6 Brazilians (Benfica: Artur, Luisão, Jardel, Talisca & Lima; Zenit: Hulk), 4 Argentines (Benfica: Pérez, Gaitán & Salvio; Zenit: Garay), 1 Uruguayan (Benfica: Pereira) and, of course, 1 Venezuelan (Zenit: Rondón). Much as this website would also like to include Danny, though he was born in Venezuela this was to parents from Portugal, a nation he has represented over twenty times.
Remarkably, this was the first time in 51 home games in all competitive competitions that Benfica lost at home. The last team to defeat them at the Estádio da Luz was Barcelona in a 2-0 Champions League victory on 2 October 2012. Incidentally, in this game Benfica started with no Portuguese players and 10 South Americans, with the Serbian Nemanja Matić the odd one out. Read more about this game here.
Zenit St. Petersburg have now won their last 11 games in all competitions, with the only blight on their record coming in their first match of the season in the away leg of the Champions League qualifier against AEL Limassol of Cyprus, who achieved a 1-0 victory.
Lastly, Zenit St. Petersburg are now undefeated in their last five games against Portuguese opposition, with their last loss actually coming against Benfica on 6 March 2012 in a 2-0 defeat that knocked them out of the Round of 16 stage of the Champions League. This was another game in which the Portuguese side did not start with any of their countrymen, but they did play two midfielders who must have stood out to the Zenit hierarchy – Javi García and Axel Witsel. These two later recruitments may have been a consequence of a lesson learned by matches such as this, as on this occasion the Russians very much did show faith in their native players, fielding eight of them in contrast to a mere three this time around. Read more about their previous encounter here.