Zenit edge past Benfica

Russians kick off European Champions League first leg with last-minute home win over Benfica.

    Advantage Russia at a chilly Stadion Petrovsky stadium in St Petersburg [EPA] 

    Roman Shirokov scored his second goal of the game in the 89th minute as Zenit St. Petersburg beat Benfica 3-2 in the first leg of their round-of-16 matchup in the European Champions League on Wednesday.

    Maxi Pereira put Benfica ahead in the 20th, tapping the ball in after second-choice goalkeeper Yuri Zhevnov spilled Oscar Cardozo's free kick, but Shirokov equalised seven minutes later.

    Substitute Sergei Semak made it 2-1 with a backheel in the 71st.

    Cardozo levelled for the visitors in the 87th after Zhevnov again failed to hold a shot, and the game appeared headed for a 2-2 draw until a defensive blunder by Pereira gifted Shirokov his second goal - and his fifth in seven Champions League games - from short range.

    Injury crisis

    Zenit, making their debut in the knockout phase, were missing seven key players through injury and illness in their first game of the year. The Russian champions have not lost at home in European competition since 2008.

    The Portuguese club were previously unbeaten in the tournament and came through after finishing top of Group C, which included Manchester United.

    Benfica coach Jorge Jesus said the two away goals could still prove to be the key for his team in the return leg.

    "We're down but not out. We can turn this around in our own stadium, in front of our own fans,'' Jesus said.

    "It was a shame they grabbed that third goal, just when it seemed impossible.''

    After a scrappy start in freezing conditions at Petrovsky Stadium, the game kicked into life after Pereira's opener.

    Aleksandr Kerzhakov came close with a volley at the back post and Shirokov fired over the bar in a flurry of action before the equaliser.

    The Portuguese team struggled to keep Zenit out and started to threaten again only after playmaker Pablo Aimar replaced the injured Rodrigo on the half-hour mark.

    Benfica, unbeaten this season in the Portuguese league, were the more stylish team in the second half as Aimar and Nicolas Gaitan tormented the home team's defence with slick ball skills.

    SOURCE: AP


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