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Lombaerts boosts Zenit as Shakhtar slip

FC Zenit St Petersburg 1-0 FC Shakhtar Donetsk
A first-half header from centre-back Nicolas Lombaerts has put Zenit in a strong position to qualify, leaving the visitors on the verge of elimination.

Lombaerts boosts Zenit as Shakhtar slip
Lombaerts boosts Zenit as Shakhtar slip ©UEFA.com

FC Zenit St Petersburg took a giant stride towards qualifying for the UEFA Champions League round of 16 after a 1-0 win against FC Shakhtar Donetsk.

Neither side were at their fluent best, but a sustained period of first-half pressure from the home team told when Nicolas Lombaerts broke the visitors' resistance with a powerful header in added time. Zenit could have extended their margin of victory further, though once again they found Shakhtar goalkeeper Olexandr Rybka in excellent form, producing a string of world-class saves.

In contrast to the last encounter between the sides − a 2-2 draw a fortnight ago − the opening exchanges were scrappy, with neither team playing with any conviction as the final pass went astray far too often. As the half progressed, Zenit began to increase the tempo.

Soon Luciano Spalletti's men were dominating possession yet, just as he had been in Ukraine, Rybka was putting on a masterclass to keep the Russian league leaders at bay. The 24-year-old produced a trio of stunning saves to deny Aleksandr Bukharov and Konstantin Zryanov twice.

Just as it looked as though Shakhtar had weathered the first-half storm, Rybka's goal was breached, Lombaerts beating Darijo Srna to Zryanov's near-post corner and powering a header into the back of the net.

Shakhtar had been below par, rarely troubling the hosts; they rallied after the break. Willian shot narrowly over yet that was about as close as the Pitmen came as Lombaerts and Tomáš Hubočan dealt expertly with everything that was thrown at them. At the other end, Vyacheslav Malafeev was a virtual spectator.

Zenit were not at their creative best, partly because their main conductor, Danny, was not 100% fit after a knee injury. As a whole the second 45 minutes lacked the intensity of the first. Nevertheless, the Portuguese international was still influential, particularly in the 78th minute when he cut the visitors' defence apart; Bukharov was unable to apply the finishing touch.

Zenit were content to put men behind the ball and protect their lead, with Shakhtar struggling to muster a shot at goal. The Blue and Whites comfortably held on for their ninth successive home win in Europe and now lead FC Porto, in third, by three points.