Two goals from Roman Shirokov, the second two minutes from time, helped FC Zenit St Petersburg to a narrow victory against SL Benfica although the Portuguese side remain in contention for a UEFA Champions League quarter-final place thanks to two away goals.
It was Benfica who struck the first blow of an entertaining contest, an opportunist Maxi Pereira strike putting them in front with 20 minutes gone. Shirokov's fine volley swiftly levelled matters and substitute Sergei Semak rounded off a fine move midway through the second half to turn the contest in Zenit's favour. Óscar Cardozo looked to have given Benfica a valuable draw late on, but within 60 seconds Shirokov had capitalised on defensive uncertainty to set up a pulsating second leg on 6 March.
In freezing temperatures the match took time to warm up, but it was the visitors who found their feet first. Cardozo's 25-metre free-kick bounced awkwardly in front of Yuri Zhevnov and the Zenit goalkeeper could only palm the shot straight back out; Pereira reacted quickest to turn in the loose ball.
That forced the Russian champions and league leaders into action and they poured forward in search of an equaliser. Their reward was rapid as Tomáš Hubočan expertly picked out Shirokov on the penalty spot. The 30-year-old let the ball come across his body before directing an excellent right-foot volley into the bottom corner, leaving Artur with no chance as he recorded his fourth goal in this season's competition.
Luciano Spalletti's charges had opportunities to add to their tally with Benfica now on the back foot and they went close to snatching the lead in first-half stoppage time. Konstantin Zryanov threaded a teasing centre across the goalmouth but no one in a blue shirt was able to apply the finishing touch.
The second half was a more even affair with neither side at their fluent best and clear chances few and far between. When one was created, 19 minutes from time, it was accepted greedily as Zenit moved in front with a superb team goal. Aleksandr Kerzhakov did excellently to keep the ball in play with a deft back-heel, which found the unmarked Vladimir Bystov in the penalty area. The substitute picked out Semak, himself a half-time replacement, and with an astute back-heel of his own the midfielder sent the ball into the far corner.
Now it was Benfica's turn to muster a response and they duly found one with three minutes left. Nicolás Gaitán found himself with time and space on the penalty spot and, though Zhevnov blocked his shot, again the goalkeeper failed to hold on and this time Cardozo was the grateful recipient.
Visiting celebrations were fleeting, however, as Pereira unwisely attempted to control Aleksandr Anyukov's low right-wing cross. His heavy touch allowed Shirokov to steal in and, despite Artur's best efforts, the midfielder squeezed his shot into the net to give Zenit a slender but vital advantage to take to Portugal.
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