SL Benfica are back in the UEFA Champions League quarter-finals for the first time in six years after Maxi Pereira's first-half effort and a late Nlson Oliveira strike propelled the Portuguese side past FC Zenit St Petersburg.
Beaten 3-2 in Russia three weeks ago, Benfica encountered stout resistance in the opening period as they chased the win they needed. Patience was required but, having taken the lead in all their European outings since the start of the group stage, Jorge Jesus's men went ahead via the lively Pereira just before the break. With Zenit unable to muster a response, substitute Oliveira sealed the Eagles' passage in added time.
That had by no means seemed inevitable in the opening stages. Pereira and Bruno Csar combined well to make early inroads down the right, but if Benfica's pre-match plan had been to rattle Luciano Spalletti's side from the start, it was quickly revised. Calm, tidy and rigorous in their approach, Zenit denied their opponents even a sniff of goal until the 15th minute, when Vyacheslav Malafeev – back after missing the first leg through injury – leapt out to punch clear a Csar cross with scar Cardozo lurking.
A pattern of increasing Benfica pressure was emerging, however, and as the hosts began spreading their passes around with more accuracy, their attacking edge improved. The point was underlined when a slick move involving Nicols Gaitn ended with Pereira sending a low shot across goal from a tight angle; Malafeev turned the ball clear.
Try as they might, though, clear-cut chances remained elusive. Zenit's defensive discipline was impressive to behold, and the Premier-Liga leaders almost grabbed a goal when goalkeeper Artur was dispossessed by Aleksandr Kerzhakov and had to scurry back to keep out Roman Shirokov's curled attempt.
That lapse in concentration sent shivers through the home crowd, yet they were soon celebrating as Pereira broke the deadlock in first-half added time. Axel Witsel had a shot saved by Malafeev at point-blank range, but the rebound fell at the feet of the Belgium midfielder and a back-heel found his Uruguayan team-mate, who calmly planted the ball inside the far post.
With his side's dream of a first ever last-eight place fading, Spalletti brought on Danko Lazovi for Vladimir Bystrov after the break, only to watch his charges nearly fall two goals behind when centre-back Jardel headed narrowly wide following a corner. Zenit's determination to attack left the Eagles with space to exploit too, and Cardozo had a shot blocked after being served by Rodrigo down the left.
The Paraguayan predator was presented with an even better opportunity when he brushed past Nicolas Lombaerts to meet a long ball, but with just Malafeev to beat he drilled his shot beyond the post. The prolific No7 then stung the keeper's palms from the edge of the area, before Jardel directed another header wide as Benfica sought breathing space. Confidently holding their ground at the other end, they earned it, finally, as Oliveira rounded off a counterattack with a deflected effort.
News source: UEFA
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City news archive for 11 March' 2012.
City news archive for March' 2012.
City news archive for 2012 year.