Benfica 0-2 Zenit St. Petersburg
Benfica's Champions League campaign got off to a bad start as the Eagles were well beaten by Russian outfit Zenit St. Petersburg at the Estádio da Luz. A nightmare opening saw the hosts reduced to ten men following Artur's sending off and 2-0 down after just 22 minutes, the goals scored by old nemesis Hulk and former Benfica midfielder Axel Witsel.
The Eagles improved in the second half and were unlucky not to claw a goal back, and the players' efforts were at least rewarded by a tremendous (and highly unusual in Portugal) show of support for a losing team from the home fans who chanted loudly throughout the closing minutes. Nevertheless, Zenit were worthy winners and with two away games next, against Bayer Leverkusen and Monaco, Benfica are already facing a tough task to qualify for the knockout rounds.
Hopes were high that Benfica would start full of confidence after the 5-0 demolition of Vitória Setúbal on Friday evening. Coach Jorge Jesus kept faith in the same starting XI.
However, it quickly became apparent that putting a middle-level Portuguese team to the sword is one thing, while facing top opposition in the Champions League (Zenit have won all seven of their Russian Premier League games this season) is a very different proposition. The visitors took control from the off, with Hulk almost setting up a goal in the opening seconds, his run and cross on the left flank just evading the sliding Shatov.
The former FC Porto forward was causing havoc every time he picked up the ball against a strangely nervous Benfica, and it was little surprise when Zenit took the lead. Jardel's loose pass was picked up by Shatov who advanced before slipping a perfect pass to Hulk, who lifted a delightful finish past Artur.
Artur sees red
The beleaguered Benfica goalkeeper then spilled a Hulk free kick and was relieved to see the rebound wasted by Garay. The home side's chaotic organisation was again ruthlessly punished in the 18th minute, some loose passing and static marking allowing Danny to run clean through. The Portuguese playmaker knocked the ball past Artur who body-checked him preventing a certain goal, with a red card the logical result.
Paulo Lopes came on and Talisca was sacrificed by Jorge Jesus, and from the resulting free kick Hulk's blasted effort was deflected just wide of the post. It was only a brief reprieve, however, as from the corner Axel Witsel rose highest to head into the net, Paulo Lopes managing to claw the ball out but not before it had crossed the line, with the referee making the correct decision to award the goal.
We were only halfway through the first half but the match was effectively over as a contest, with the incredulous crowd no doubt fearing a defeat by a humiliating scoreline, as Zenit continued to boss operations until the break.
Different attitude in second half
To Benfica's credit they refused to throw in the towel, and came out in the second half intent on hauling themselves back into the match, playing with an urgency and heart that had been completely absent in the first 45 minutes, albeit taking advantage of Zenit's more circumspect approach.
A Luisão header was brilliantly saved by Zenit goalkeeper Lodygin, and Salvio was unlucky not to earn a penalty when he looked to have been tripped in the box. In an open second half, Zenit also had several chances to extend their lead, with Hulk hitting the inside of the post from a narrow angle.
Try as they might, Benfica could not make the breakthrough that would have blown the match open again, but the team's efforts were recognised by the supporters, the whole stadium spending the final minutes thunderously chanting "Benfica".
Jesus moved by support
Jorge Jesus made a point of thanking the fans in his post-match interviews, saying: "In six years as Benfica coach I've never seen anything like it. It was an emotional moment. I thank the supporters from the bottom of my heart. At times I've won games with Benfica away from home and the home supporters never stopped backing their team and I asked myself 'how beautiful, could this ever happen in Portugal?' Today it happened. This show of support will be important for the team and make us stronger."
The coach also insisted that qualification for the next stage is wide open, arguing that given the competitive nature of the group any side could beat any other side home or away. In the other Group C match Leonardo Jardim's Monaco beat Bayer Leverkusen 1-0 thanks to a goal from Portugal midfielder João Moutinho.
by Tom Kundert, at the Estádio da Luz