Bruno Alves has promised that FC Zenit St Petersburg will return to the UEFA Champions League "even stronger" after their dream of reaching the quarter-finals for the first time was snuffed out by SL Benfica in Lisbon.
Coach Luciano Spalletti had called Tuesday's encounter "the most important match in Zenit's history", but they were unable to defend their 3-2 first-leg advantage as Maxi Pereira and Nélson Oliveira found the net for the hosts in added time at the end of each half. Content to contain Benfica at the start, the 2008 UEFA Cup winners were then unable to pose a genuine threat when it mattered, with Alves one of the few players to test goalkeeper Artur after being sent on as a 53rd-minute substitute.
"We brought a narrow lead from the first leg and we tried to hold onto it here," said the Portugal centre-back, on home soil again after spending much of his career with Benfica's eternal rivals FC Porto. "Zenit's philosophy isn't a defensive one; Zenit are a team who like to have the ball and play attacking football, but during most of the first half we were trying not to concede a goal. Unfortunately, that's exactly what happened during the dying seconds of the first half."
The 30-year-old was also quick to admit Zenit lacked the requisite guile after Pereira's strike left them needing to chase the game. "The team played with more freedom in the second half, but we were still unable to score," he said. "We'll just have to try to keep up our good work in the future. We lacked efficiency in front of goal as well as the ability to create more chances."
Six points clear in the Premier-Liga and through to the quarter-finals of the Russian Cup, Zenit nonetheless have plenty still to play for this season. Understandably, there is a real desire in the club's ranks to return to this stage next term, when Alves believes they will be able to progress even further. "I think Zenit will learn from this experience as I think we're leaving the Champions League even stronger as a team," he commented. "I think Zenit can be one of the best teams in Europe and we'll work hard to achieve that goal."
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