AJ Auxerre captain Benoît Pedretti hailed the "dream performance" against FC Zenit St. Petersburg that earned the French side qualification for the UEFA Champions League group stage with a 2-1 aggregate win.
Needing to overturn a single-goal deficit, the Ligue 1 outfit made the perfect start when Cédric Hengbart headed in Pedretti's corner after nine minutes. Ireneusz Jeleń added a second after the break following another Pedretti corner to put the hosts in front overall, and though the tie remained finely balanced, Auxerre kept their nerve against an off-colour Zenit who ended the contest with nine men.
The triumph capped an incredible turnaround for Auxerre, bottom of the French top flight 12 months ago. They recovered to finish third and have now booked their place in the group stage for the first time in eight years – to the delight of Pedretti. "It was always going to be tough against Zenit, but the game went like a dream," the 29-year-old midfielder told UEFA.com. "It was the ideal scenario. We told ourselves we'd need to be patient and, above all, not concede. That's what we did. The early goal gave us a lift but we didn't get carried away. We defended well and stuck together until the end."
Despite playing with nine men for the last eleven minutes, the Russian Premier-Liga leaders came close to scoring late on, and Pedretti admits he was relieved to hear the final whistle. "It was a moment of great joy. The feeling was indescribable. Don't forget, a year ago we were in a hole and everyone was tipping us for relegation. Now we're in the Champions League."
If Pedretti played a key role in the victory, full-back Cédric Hengbart proved a more unlikely hero. The 30-year-old got the goal against FC Sochaux-Montbéliard that qualified the Burgundy club for the play-offs in May – and repeated the feat with another excellent header. "I don't get many goals but I have scored some big ones lately," said the former SM Caen defender. "We've been having trouble creating chances in open play so we knew we needed to be dangerous on set-pieces. Benoît took some great corners. Now let's try to score more against the big teams we'll meet in the group stage."
While Jean Fernandez and his players turn their attentions to today's draw, Zenit, who now go into the UEFA Europa League, were left to reflect on a bad day at the office. "It didn't go as we'd hoped," centre-back Fernando Meira told UEFA.com. "Our dream was to play in the Champions League but we've come up short. We played badly and made mistakes on the goals. You can't afford to make errors in marking like that. Then once we had two players [Vyacheslav Malafeev and Tomáš Hubočan] sent off it was very difficult to react."
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