FC Zenit St. Petersburg are poised to reach the UEFA Cup semi-finals for the first time after they produced a wonderful performance to defeat Bayer 04 Leverkusen 4-1 in the first leg of their last-eight encounter at the BayArena.
Dick Advocaat was forced to watch from the stands as he served the last part of a three-match ban, but the coach will have appreciated his side's deadly counterattacking as they picked Leverkusen off almost at will. Although Stefan Kiessling cancelled out Andrei Arshavin's early goal, Zenit always looked the more dangerous team and ran out deserved victors thanks to second-half strikes from Pavel Pogrebnyak, Aleksandr Anyukov and Igor Denisov.
The Russian champions made the more assured start and Arshavin, switching flanks intermittently with Viktor Fayzulin, provoked danger almost every time he touched the ball. The skilful Russian international saw his right-wing cross intercepted by Karim Haggui on ten minutes, before moments later linking up with Pogrebnyak whose left-footed strike was deflected wide. René Adler then had to dash off his line to save at the feet of Konstantin Zyrianov, but the Leverkusen custodian could do nothing about Arshavin's superb 20th-minute goal. Collecting a loose pass from Tranquillo Barnetta, the playmaker glided past Haggui on the right, surged into the box and drilled a powerful shot high into the net from a tight angle
The breakthrough sparked an immediate response from Leverkusen, and in particular from Barnetta, who seemed determined to atone for his mistake. Vyacheslav Malafeev reacted quickly to push the Swiss international's low drive around his post, then Theofanis Gekas headed the subsequent corner from Barnetta over. Gekas was struggling to make an impact, yet he had a hand in the equaliser on 33 minutes, crossing from the right for Bernd Schneider to head goalwards. When Roman Shirokov cleared off the line, Kiessling was on hand to fire low into the net.
Kiessling's seventh goal in this season's UEFA Cup brought him level with Pogrebnyak and Luca Toni at the top of the scoring charts, only for Zenit's powerful frontman to temporarily take an outright lead seven minutes into the second period. With Leverkusen committing numbers forward, Arshavin found space on the left and timed his low centre perfectly for Pogrebnyak to roll the ball into an empty net. Zenit continued to break with pace and precision, and as Leverkusen searched in vain for a way back, they were punished with two more strikes in the space of four minutes.
Anyukov had already seen one fierce attempt parried by Adler when, in the 61st minute, the adventurous right-back let fly a dipping cross-shot inside the far post from 25 metres. Denisov then got in on the act, latching on to Pogrebnyak's through ball and slotting clinically past an exposed Adler. Sergej Barbarez, Hans Sarpei and Lukas Sinkiewicz were all introduced, but Leverkusen rarely threatened in the closing stages and Denisov might have added a fifth, shooting wide with the goal gaping. Michael Skibbe's men now face a monumental task in Russia next Thursday.