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Witsel breaks Valencia hearts in five-goal thriller

Valencia 2-3 Zenit
Axel Witsel delivered the sucker-punch after Valencia recovered a two-goal half-time deficit only to lose out on a thrilling opening night at Mestalla.

Valencia 2-3 Zenit
Valencia 2-3 Zenit
  • Zenit end nine-game, seven-season winless streak against Spanish sides
  • Hulk helps sink ex-colleague Nuno Espírito Santo on coach's competition debut
  • André Gomes marks return from injury by making it 2-2
  • Axel Witsel winner 14 minutes from time punishes Valencia
  • Next games: Zenit v Gent, Lyon v Valencia (29 September)

Zenit produced a thrilling 3-2 victory to top UEFA Champions League Group H after matchday one – beating Spanish opposition for the first time since 2007/8.

Two first-half strikes from Hulk, followed by a 76th-minute winner from Axel Witsel, were enough despite counters from João Cancelo and André Gomes.

It was a false indication when Valencia sprang onto the front foot and Cancelo smashed a long-range drive off the Zenit post in the second minute. André Villas-Boas's Russian champions acted like nothing had happened and, often with four men up front, threw the gauntlet back in the hosts' faces.

Seven minutes later Danny was gifted a continent of open space and exploited it. A perfectly measured pass to his left let Hulk show emphatically that Cancelo was a metre short in his marking. The Brazilian thrashed a shot across UEFA Champions League debutant Jaume Doménech, Valencia's third-choice keeper.

Somehow Valencia failed to appreciate the damage Danny could do. On the half-hour he elegantly set up Witsel for an identical chance, then four minutes later his deft pass made Doménech produce his best save one-on-one against Hulk.

Igor Smolnikov required defensive and athletic brilliance from José Gayá to prevent him scoring. But it was temporary respite. On half-time, Hulk collected Artem Dzyuba's knock-down and smashed into the roof of the net.

Valencia celebrate André Gomes' goal
Valencia celebrate André Gomes' goal©AFP/Getty Images

Valencia's counter came when Cancelo looked to feed substitute Paco Alcácer at the near post but, with Zenit keeper Yuri Lodygin positionally awry, the ball went straight in. Parity then came as Gomes squeezed a low shot below Lodygin from a tight angle.

Three minutes later, though, it was gone as Witsel drilled home, finding the bottom corner from 20 metres.

Man of the match
Hulk's two goals were products of the extraordinary shooting power he possesses. But his years of top-level experience shone too – in how he spotted the space Cancelo had afforded him for the first and in daring to test a debutant UEFA Champions League keeper from distance for his second goal. Brains as well as brawn.

Zenit celebrate at full time
Zenit celebrate at full time©AFP/Getty Images

Where the match was won and lost
Nuno Espírito Santo often uses a 4-3-3 formation, as tonight. But when the opposition threaten with overlapping full-backs and flood midfield, it demands that Valencia's three-man midfield display immense discipline and intelligence. Here, though, they gave Danny too much freedom to create havoc. And he took advantage. As did Witsel for the third. Don't miss chances, don't gift space – tenets of the UEFA Champions League.

Nuno Espírito Santo, Valencia coach
From the first minute to the last, with our head and hearts we did what we could. But we know what Zenit are about: they had three shots and scored from each of them. The second half followed a similar narrative to the first, playing with width and attacking through the middle. We are a side that goes for the win, but football can be cruel – it is all about goals. There's five more games in the group and we still have lots to play for.

André Villas-Boas, Zenit coach
We played well, although we let Valencia have most of the possession. That was our strategy – to counterattack. That is how we got our three goals. The result is fair. To have a lot of the ball in football does not necessarily mean a lot. That can work during a match and today we were fortunate to win the game using this strategy. We did not have the majority of the possession, but when we had the ball we did well.

©AFP/Getty Images
©AFP/Getty Images
©AFP/Getty Images
©AFP/Getty Images