Nine points on Zenit 3-2 Benfica

February 16, 2012

The starting line-ups

An eventful match with lots of attacking and rather too many goalkeeping mistakes.

1. Zenit are now without Danny after his sad injury. He was their technical leader, brilliant on the counter-attack and wonderfully creative. Zenit are predominantly a counter-attacking side – their approach in Europe this year has been to sit back, soak up pressure and then hit sides on the break.

Here, however, they were much more proactive without the ball – the front players closed down, the fluid midfield triangle tried to press Benfica’s holders quickly. It created an open game, but Zenit allowed Benfica far too many opportunities to counter.

2. On that note, Benfica should have scored more goals, particularly on the break. Nicolas Gaitan, usually a fantastic user of the ball, was unusually poor with his decision-making and passing in key situations. One 4 v 3 break, for example, came to nothing with a woeful pass behind Pablo Aimar.

3. Aimar’s introduction, for the injured Rodrigo, forced Benfica to play a slightly different system, and they looked less dangerous when attacking after the switch. Jorge Jesus elected to put on Pablo Aimar rather than Javier Saviola, and whereas Benfica had been causing problems with the option of hitting the ball direct to the front two (with Rodrigo dropping onto Igor Denisov when out of possession, then spinning in behind him), Aimar sat much deeper in front of Denisov, and didn’t have the explosion of pace to get past him.

The line-ups after Aimar replaced Rodrigo

4. Roman Shirokov has been one of the most effective players in the Champions League this season with his ‘llegada’ – late runs to the edge of the box from midfield. The Zenit midfield trio often rotates at will, but here there was a more structured approach with the ball – Denisov sat, Konstantin Zyryanov played the link role, and Shirokov was free to power into the box. Like in the home game against Porto, he netted two goals.

5. Shirokov owes a lot to the intelligent runs of Aleksandr Kerzhakov, who continually peels away from the centre, takes a centre-back with him, and leaves a huge amount of space for the midfield runners to exploit. This was particularly obvious for the chance he created for Shirokov just before his first goal, and also for Sergei Semak’s goal that came at the end of a beautifully sweeping move.

6. Zenit’s reserve goalkeeper Yuri Zhevnov had a truly awful game, and looks well short of the required ability for this level. Benfica should have tested him more from range, and if Vyacheslav Malafeev doesn’t return in time for the second leg, Zenit may have serious problems if they’re looking to recreate the defensive-minded performance that resulted in progression away at Porto.

The line-ups after Spalletti's second half changes

7. Luciano Spalletti deserves great credit for the substitutions that allowed Zenit to dominate much of the second half. Sergei Semak had replaced Zyryanov in the centre of midfield, but Spalletti then brought on Vladimir Bystrov for the ineffective Maksim Kanunnikov down the right.

At the same time, Spalletti made an odd change, bringing Viktor Fayzulin briefly to a right-centre position, and Semak out to the left of the front three. Those players were clearly out of position, but Fayzulin was able to see more of the ball and created well from deep, while Semak got the finishing touch to the second goal after a fine move started by Bystrov on the opposite flank.

8. Nemanja Matic is currently nowhere near as adept as Javi Garcia in the holding role, and he failed to get a grip on the game in midfield. He actually completed more passes than any other Benfica player, but it was 30 completed passes from 54 attempted, a staggeringly poor effort for a central midfielder.

9. 3-2 to the home side sets up the second leg perfectly, and with the return leg of Arsenal v Milan likely to be a dead rubber, hopefully there will be more attention on these two fine sides. Benfica will be more attacking from the outset, and Zenit are likely to revert to a counter-attacking approach in Lisbon.

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