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A stunning second-half strike from Ireneusz Jeleń ensured AJ Auxerre will return to the UEFA Champions League group stage after an eight-year absence following a superb win against nine-man FC Zenit St. Petersburg.
Trailing by a single goal from the first leg, the French club produced a stirring performance in Burgundy, scoring early in each half through Cédric Hengbart and then Jeleń, whose brilliant acrobatic volley ultimately proved the difference between the sides. The 2008 UEFA Cup winners were rarely at their best, and their misery was compounded as Vyacheslav Malafeev and Tomáš Hubočan were both sent off.
As in the first leg, the hosts struck first with a headed goal. Hengbart needed a little more time than Aleksandr Kerzhakov had in Russia, but when the right-back climbed high to power home Benoît Pedretti's eighth-minute corner the French club were off to a dream start. Hengbart is making a habit of scoring crucial headers; it was his strike that qualified Auxerre for the play-offs in the final seconds of the last Ligue 1 season.
The goal galvanised Jean Fernandez's charges who defended stoutly throughout and posed frequent problems via sprightly wingers Roy Contout and Dennis Oliech. For their part, Luciano Spalletti's men looked a shadow of the side that had attacked with such verve on home soil. Indeed, it took them 42 minutes to create a clear chance, Kerzhakov seeing his volley deflect wide off Stéphane Grichting.
The first half had been fast and furious yet neither goalkeeper was overworked. Olivier Sorin needed to be at his best five minutes after the restart, however, producing a stunning save to deny Vladimir Bystrov. The Russian international sprinted in from the right, jinking between Grichting and Jean-Pascal Mignot, then fizzed in a shot that was brilliantly tipped over. Auxerre reacted instantly, doubling their lead two minutes later. Pedretti again provided the ammunition, bending over another corner that was nodded on by Adama Coulibaly and dispatched in spectacular fashion at the far post by Jeleń.
Zenit still required just one goal, yet their hopes took an almighty blow when two players were dismissed within 14 minutes. Malafeev was the first to go, the goalkeeper handling outside the box as Oliech threatened to burst clear after 65 minutes, and he was soon followed by defender Hubočan who received a second yellow card for another handball offence, again to deny Oliech. The visitors kept going, but Danny saw his cross-shot fizz wide and Sorin punched away Bruno Alves's free-kick. Kerzhakov squandered Zenit's last opportunity, slicing over on 87 minutes, as Auxerre sealed a memorable success. They discover their opposition on Thursday; Zenit go into the UEFA Europa League.
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