Auxerre 2-0 Zenit: Two goals from corners and two red cards
Auxerre progress thanks to two goals from corner-kicks, against a frustrating nine-man Zenit side.
Jean Fernandez made one change from the first leg, surprisingly dropping Walter Birsa and bringing in Roy Contout in the left-wing position. Otherwise, they played the same conservative 4-4-1-1 system, with Anthony Le Tallec trying to combine with Ireneusz Jelen upfront.
Zenit made three changes. Fernando Meira (who they have recently seemed quite keen to sell) replaced Nicolas Lombaerts in a straight swap in the centre of defence. Further forward, there were positional shifts – Vladimir Bystrov replaced Danko Lazovic, so Danny Alves moved to the left, and Konstantin Zyryanov was recalled, meaning Sergei Semak returned to a defensive midfield role.
Auxerre’s primary concern was not to concede an away goal, knowing that this would force them to score three, and started the match cautiously. Zenit, on the other hand, were looking to play on the counter-attack, but Auxerre’s reluctance to come forward was depriving them of the chance to hit them on the break, and for the opening period of the game, we had somewhat of a stalemate.
Auxerre were struggling to create in open play, because they instructed Le Tallec to pick up Semak when Zenit had the ball. Therefore, when Auxerre won possession, they invariably found that their central playmaker was already being closely marked by Zenit’s holding player, and Le Tallec saw little of the ball.
Instead, Auxerre’s best bet was to attack down the flanks, with Contout and Dennis Oliech much more involved in play. Oliech played an energetic role on the right, bombing up and down the flank, whilst Countout was slightly more cultured – constantly cutting in onto his right foot, but never quite finding the through ball required to create chances.
Auxerre kept their two holding midfielders solidly in front of their back four at all times, even when they had the ball in promising areas. Benoit Pedretti and Delvin Ndinga never looked to get into goalscoring positions, instead they simply sat deep and knocked the ball to the flanks. This meant that Zenit, who love to break through the centre of the pitch, quickly ran into traffic, and they created relatively little.
The first goal was incredibly simple – Pedretti’s corner was headed in by Cedric Hengbart, who was allowed a free header thanks to slack marking from Meira. Zenit had no-one on either post.
The tie was level, but one Zenit goal would ‘count double’, so Auxerre’s focus continued to be on keeping a clean sheet. They defended narrow and relatively deep, and Zenit didn’t work the ball intelligently enough to get into many goalscoring positions. Their current formation appears something like a 4-3-2-1 / 4-3-3 hybrid, with three central midfielders and the two attacking players shuttling between central positions and wider roles, but their lack of width was all too evident when they were behind an Auxerre had even less inclination to attack – Bystrov was the biggest threat with his pace in behind the defence, and it was no coincidence that he was the player taking up the widest positions.
Auxerre extended their lead when another right-wing Pedretti corner caused problems – it was flicked to the far post where Jelen swivelled and crashed a volley high into the net.
Luciano Spalletti immediately withdrew Zyryanov and introduced Lazovic, going 4-2-3-1. They looked much better – more width and more players in attacking positions when they won the ball back.
But they only played this way for ten minutes, because their goalkeeper Vyacheslav Malafeev was dismissed for handling the ball way, way outside his penalty area. Spalletti was forced to withdraw an outfield player, and (slightly surprisingly) chose Bystrov, switching Zenit to something like 4-2-3.
The red card gave the initiative to Auxere, and Zenit didn’t have a shot until ten minutes from time, by which point they’d introduced a second striker, Aleksandr Bukharov, for Meira. But just a minute after that change, they went down to nine men after Tomas Hubocan was given a second yellow card, and so they ended the game with two defenders, Semak deep in midfield, and five players up the pitch trying to get a goal.
And they did have chances – Aleksandr Kerzhakov had two attempts, and Bruno Alves hit a decent free-kick which was fisted away by Olivier Sorin. Auxerre could and should have extended their lead, as they were usually breaking 4 v 3, but they neither put the ball into the net, nor kept the ball particularly impressively to waste time.
A stalemate in open play that was decided only by two corner kicks, which Zenit defended very poorly. Auxerre succeeded in stopping Zenit by keeping the centre of midfield occupied with two holding players, meaning the Russian side weren’t able to break down the middle, and they had few players in wide positions.
One must feel for Spalletti – both of his attack-minded substitutions were undermined almost immediately by red cards to defensive players, and he was constantly forced to reshape his side. Zenit are one of the most tactically exciting sides in Europe at the moment, so their non-participation in the Champions League is a disappointment – but if you concede cheap goals from set plays, you’ll always have your work cut out.Auxerre 2-0 Zenit: Two goals from corners and two red cards