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Kerzhakov heads Zenit into the ascendancy

FC Zenit St. Petersburg 1-0 AJ Auxerre
Aleksandr Kerzhakov's third-minute header gave Luciano Spalletti's side a slender lead to take to France next week.

Aleksandr Kerzhakov celebrates scoring Zenit's winner against Auxerre
Aleksandr Kerzhakov celebrates scoring Zenit's winner against Auxerre ©AFP

Aleksandr Kerzhakov's early header gave FC Zenit St. Petersburg a narrow lead to take into the second leg of their UEFA Champions League play-off against AJ Auxerre.

Though Auxerre sporadically threatened an equaliser, a Zenit side containing high-profile summer recruits Bruno Alves and Sergei Semak were good value for their narrow victory, preserving an impressive record of just two defeats in UEFA's main club competitions in their past 27 games at the Petrovsky Stadium thanks to Kerzhakov's third-minute strike. Auxerre must now come from behind on Wednesday week to end an eight-year wait to play in the group stage of UEFA's premier club competition.

Up against a Zenit side unbeaten in 16 Russian Premier League games and seven points clear at the summit, an Auxerre team shorn of the services of midfielder Dariusz Dudka through suspension were on the back foot from the off in Russia. Indeed, they had scarcely got their bearings when Kerzhakov ghosted in to head Danko Lazović's cross low to Olivier Sorin's left and just inside the post.

It was not until the half-hour, though, that Zenit's dominance translated itself into a further threat on Sorin's goal, Roman Shirokov turning Aleksandr Anyukov's delightful chip just over the bar. Kerzhakov's rasping free-kick also ended up behind, though this time Auxerre had Sorin's athleticism to thank as the goalkeeper dived to his left and palmed the ball over.

Five minutes before half-time Jean Fernandez's side found their stride. Anthony Le Tallec finally called Vyacheslav Malafeev into action with a prodded effort from close range before Dennis Oliech went closer still when he dug out a shot from the edge of the area which spun beyond Malafeev only to strike the bar.

Though the visitors' revival was briefly punctuated immediately after the interval, Sorin denying Shirokov from point-blank range, the Ligue 1 side had ridden the storm. Ireneusz Jeleń twice went within a whisker of bringing them back on level terms, firstly lobbing over the advancing Malafeev yet onto the roof of the net before firing a shot straight at the home goalkeeper.

Both teams, however, were reluctant to take too many risks, Zenit content with a slender advantage to take into the return – Alves' late free-kick as close as they came to a more emphatic cushion – and Auxerre relieved to have survived an early bombardment with minimum damage inflicted.