Nicolas Lombaerts set his sights on prolonging a "magnificent season" as FC Zenit St Petersburg celebrated the 0-0 draw at FC Porto that took them through to the last 16 for the first time.
Article top media content
Nicolas Lombaerts betrayed some sympathy for FC Porto, but could not hide his glee after FC Zenit St Petersburg survived an onslaught to claim their place in the UEFA Champions League round of 16.
The cheers echoing around the underground car park at the Estádio do Dragão spoke volumes for satisfied visitors as Zenit prepared for the long journey home from Portugal in high spirits. With their place in next Friday's knockout stage draw secured and six points clear at their domestic summit, the Russian champions have plenty to nourish them as they start an extended winter break.
"It's the first time we've got through to the last 16 so it's truly historic," beamed Lombaerts. The Belgian international, part of a determined rearguard action that lasted most of the 90 minutes, felt pity for the vanquished Portuguese title holders: his team-mates' cries of delight were, he said, partly born of relief.
"It was very difficult today," he told UEFA.com. "
They were better than us, and deserved to win, but that's football. We played like that against APOEL [FC on matchday five, drawing 0-0], so we are just very happy today." The 26-year-old reserved special praise for goalkeeper Vyacheslav Malafeev: "He saved us. He played a magnificent match."
Wave after wave of attack broke in the Zenit penalty area but as the wash receded Malafeev was always there, an impenetrable barrier. Porto's Nicolás Otamendi, for one, was at a loss. "We did everything we could to get the win," he said. "We knew Zenit would play an intelligent game, giving nothing away and playing on the counterattack. We created lots of chances to score but had no luck."
Even if elimination is difficult to swallow, Otamendi did share his coach Vítor Pereira's view that the opportunity to defend the UEFA Europa League title they won with such elan last season is a consolation. "We have to think about the rest of the year," he said. "We have to approach the Europa League as we did this match, with maximum effort and together, as a group."
Team-mate Hulk shared Otamendi's positive outlook. "
It is disappointing as we played our best game of the season, in a collective sense," he said, "It was nice to see the fans applauding our efforts, gratifying – it's just a pity the applause wasn't for victory."
Zenit will also accept their supporters' acclaim, as they look to new horizons. The transitional Premier-Liga season means there is still some way to go in their domestic campaign. "The season is normally finished now but we have 12 matches to go in the league," said Lombaerts.
"We're top, six points clear; we could be champions again, we could get to the [UEFA Champions League] quarter-finals. Anything is possible. It has been a magnificent season." And it is not over yet.