Fri, Feb 17, 2012 - Page 20 News List

Scourge of Portuguese Roman Shirokov downs Benfica

Reuters, ST PETERSBURG, RUSSIA

Zenit St Petersburg’s Roman Shirokov, front, shoots to score the winning goal against Benfica during their Champions League round-of-16, first-leg match at the Petrovsky Stadium in St Petersburg, Russia, on Wednesday.

Photo: Reuters

Roman Shirokov again proved the undoing of Portuguese opponents when he struck twice to power Zenit St Petersburg to a 3-2 win over Benfica in their Champions League round-of-16 first-leg tie on Wednesday.

The central midfielder, who netted a double against Porto in the group stage in September, scored in the 27th minute shortly after Maxi Pereira had put the visitors ahead following a free-kick, then he snatched victory two minutes from time.

Substitute Sergei Semak had fired the hosts in front midway through the second half with a neat back-heel, before Oscar Cardozo leveled for 2-2, setting the stage for Shirokov’s late winner.

With next month’s second leg still to play, Shirokov hopes to wreak further damage on the Portuguese.

“I hope I’m not finished yet,” the outspoken Russia international said when asked if he had become something of a bogeyman for Portuguese teams. “I think I have a few more [goals] left in me.”

With temperatures falling well below freezing, both teams struggled to adapt to difficult conditions and a hard pitch.

The visitors struck first, Uruguayan defender Pereira slotting home from close range in the 20th minute when Zenit goalkeeper Yuri Zhevnov, playing in his first Champions League game, could not hold on to the ball following a free-kick by Cardozo.

Despite missing several key players, including first-choice goalkeeper Vyacheslav Malafeyev and Portugal midfielder Danny, Zenit pressed forward and seven minutes later Shirokov struck a low volley into the far corner to make it 1-1.

With 19 minutes left to play, the home fans were celebrating when the hosts got themselves ahead.

The 35-year-old Semak, with his back to the goal, flicked the ball into the net for his first goal in European competition since scoring in a Europa League match against Swiss side BSC Young Boys in February last year.

An opportunistic strike by Cardozo on 87 minutes had given Benfica hope that the match would end in a draw before the return leg in Lisbon, but Shirokov had the last word a minute later.

The winner was Shirokov’s fifth goal in the competition and it came after he had also scored twice in a 3-1 home victory over Portuguese champions Porto in a Group G match in September.

“It was a very difficult game for both teams and also very emotional,” Zenit coach Luciano Spalletti told reporters.

“We showed great heart, snatching victory at the very end,” added the Italian, who last week committed his long-term future to Zenit by extending his contract with the wealthy club, which is backed by Russian energy giant Gazprom, until 2015.

His Benfica counterpart Jorge Jesus blamed cold weather and a shabby pitch for his team’s problems.

“It was tough, the pitch had no grass and we had to play on a patch of dirt. Also our defense didn’t do well, that’s why we gave up three goals tonight,” Jesus said. “Still, the tie is not over yet. I believe everything will be decided in Lisbon.”

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