Real Madrid CF took a firm grip on UEFA Champions League Group H as a Tomáš Hubočan own goal and Ruud van Nistelrooy's strike secured victory at FC Zenit St. Petersburg, who have it all to do after a second successive narrow defeat.
Frantic first half
Having succumbed 1-0 at Juventus a fortnight ago, the last thing Zenit needed was to fall behind to a Hubočan own goal after just four minutes. Record signing Danny levelled midway through the opening period, although parity lasted just six minutes as a typically opportunist strike from Van Nistelrooy restored the Spanish champions' lead. From then on it was all Zenit, but a combination of sterling goalkeeping from Iker Casillas, the woodwork and defensive numbers – typified by Pepe's added-time block from a stinging Danny drive – ensured it was Madrid who left with the spoils.
The home supporters responded to their favourites' home debut in the UEFA Champions League by holding up thousands of black, white and blue plastic sheets with a huge banner showing men in black surrounded by stars, a symbol of the UEFA Cup holders' emergence among the high society of European football. However it all went quiet within four minutes as Madrid got the early goal they were seeking, Hubočan slicing Rafael van der Vaart's low cross into his own net with Van Nistelrooy lurking. The Zenit defender nearly repeated the error shortly afterwards when Arjen Robben slipped away down the left and crossed, Hubočan's clearance flashing dangerously close to the post.
To the relief of their fans Zenit began to find their feet, Andrei Arshavin almost nodding in a brilliant left-wing cross from Radek Šírl. When Arshavin volleyed from outside the area Casillas proved equal to it but an equaliser looked on the cards and so it proved in the 25th minute, Arshavin collecting Šírl's pass before delivering a deep cross which Danny flicked in ahead of Gabriel Heinze. It was a stylish way to register Zenit's first goal in the competition but the celebrations proved short-lived, Van der Vaart's deflected shot falling nicely for Van Nistelrooy to finish with aplomb.
Casillas to the rescue
Zenit twice threatened a second equaliser before half-time, Casillas intercepting Igor Denisov's dangerous low cross and then reacting quickly to clutch the ball after Hubočan's header had diverted off Denisov. Madrid did dominate the early exchanges in the second half, Robben unleashing a dangerous shot just too high, but that proved an isolated incident as the visitors were happy to sit back and soak up Zenit pressure while the hosts struggled to find any space to press.
The exception came when Casillas reacted to Arshavin's cross-cum-shot, then dealt with Denisov's rebound and Šírl's powerful shot from the edge of the area. Another golden chance followed but Konstantin Zyryanov failed to direct his header. Dick Advocaat's men were cursing their luck again when substitutes Alejandro Dominguez and Fatih Tekke dazzled Madrid's defence with a fine one-touch combination to set up Arshavin for a shot that rattled the post, summing up Zenit's night.