Shirokov saves day for Zenit
Roman Shirokov netted a brace as Zenit St Petersburg edged out Benfica 3-2 in the first leg of their Champions League last-16 tie.
Last Updated: 15/02/12 7:20pm
Roman Shirokov netted a brace as Zenit St Petersburg came from behind to edge out Benfica 3-2 in the first leg of their UEFA Champions League last-16 tie.
Maxi Pereira put the visitors in the driving seat in freezing conditions in Russia as he fired home in the 21st minute, capitalising on a poor clearance of a Oscar Cardozo free-kick from goalkeeper Yuri Zhevnov.
Shirokov equalised for the hosts six minutes later and the game remained locked at 1-1 until 20 minutes before full time, when substitute Sergei Semak's neat backheel put Zenit ahead after some wonderful build-up involving Alexander Kerzhakov and Vladimir Bystrov.
A frantic final 10 minutes saw Cardozo capitalise on more sloppy goalkeeping from Zhevnov to pull Benfica level again but Shirokov spared the hosts' blushes with an 89th-minute strike.
The result puts Zenit in control heading into the second leg in Portugal in two weeks' time, while also ending Benfica's 11-match winning streak.
The sub-zero 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 fortune after 27 minutes when a much-improved Zenit pulled level, Tomas Hubocan sending 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 hit the front with 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 miscontrolled 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 March 6th.