"I'm happy," said Hulk after FC Zenit's win at his former club FC Porto on Tuesday night. "But I'll never forget Porto." It was clear, from the moment the Brazil forward was loudly applauded as he took to the pitch to warm up with the turnstiles only just open, that the feeling is entirely mutual.
Blue-and-white scarves bearing his name and hand-written signs saying "we miss you Hulk" were brandished in the Estádio do Dragão crowd before the match. If the man himself was unabashed at being "touched by the affection of the people" when speaking to journalists later, he was very clear in one revealing statement.
"I'm a professional," Hulk said, starkly and simply. That much had been clear in his outstanding performance against his old team-mates. Playing at centre-forward, rather than in the right-sided role he made his own while at Porto, he was a constant menace with his pace, strength and directness. He was responsible for nine of Zenit's 13 efforts on goal; eight of those nine attempts were on target. He even managed to fashion the late winner for substitute Aleksandr Kerzhakov with a pinpoint cross.
If his warmth and approachability off the field have not changed, it appears that an already fine player is growing yet further on it. Many observers familiar with Hulk, 27, from his four seasons at Porto have remarked that he is even more muscly than before, which makes his lightning acceleration all the more remarkable.
Hulk arrived back in northern Portugal in magnificent form, having scored nine times and created seven more in his previous nine games for Zenit. It may sound unusual for a player so defined by his energy, but at his best Hulk lends Luciano Spalletti's team a kind of serenity. There was a patience about Zenit that they've not always displayed in the UEFA Champions League – knowing that if they do the simple things well, their star will provide the spectacular.
Two years on from their maiden appearance in the competition's knockout stage, it might be time for Zenit to return. Hulk is beginning to write a whole new success story in Russia.
The opinions expressed here are the writer's own and not those of UEFA.
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