Champions League: Zenit St Petersburg 3 Benfica 2
Zenit St Petersburg ran out 3-2 winners over Benfica in a thrilling Champions League round-of-16 first-leg clash at the Petrovsky Stadium.
Maxi Pereira opened the scoring for the visitors 20 minutes in on Wednesday, but Roman Shirokov hit back for the hosts seven minutes later to have things level at half-time.
Sergei Semak gave Zenit the lead at the 71-minute mark, but a goal from Oscar Cardozo three minutes from the end seemed to be enough to secure a draw for Benfica.
Shirokov, however, had other ideas and rounded off his brace one minute later to hand the Russian club the advantage before the return leg in Portugal on March 6.
Conditions were well below freezing, and with the home side playing their first competitive match in two months, it was no surprise that the first half unfolded in fits and starts with both teams struggling to establish a rhythm.
Perhaps befitting the tone of the opening exchanges, it was a scrappy goal from Benfica that broke the deadlock after 20 minutes. A free kick by Cardozo was fumbled by goalkeeper Yuri Zhevnov, which gave Pereira an empty net in which to poke home the rebound.
Zenit were not fazed by the setback, and went on the offensive moments later through Aleksandr Kerzhakov, who forced Benfica goalkeeper Artur to block his effort.
Artur could do nothing about the equaliser in the 28th minute, however, after an inviting cross by Tomas Hubocan was volleyed superbly by Shirokov into the bottom corner.
Neither side was able to maintain the momentum for long, and the match settled into a lull as the first half drew to a close. Things did not get much better after the interval, with both sides content to err on the side of caution as the second half progressed.
Cardozo was able to spark things into life in the 69th minute when he managed to squeeze a shot towards goal, forcing Zhevnov into an awkward scrambling save.
Two minutes later Zenit took the lead for the first time after another well-worked goal. Kerzhakov raced down the right to hook the ball towards Vladimir Bystrov, and his low cross found fellow substitute Semak, who turned the ball home with a clever flick.
Kerzhakov was at it again a few minutes later when he was found in space inside the area, but the forward elected to blast the ball into the side netting instead of cutting back for one of his better-placed team-mates.
With three minutes to go, Benfica grabbed an equaliser through Cardozo after a fumble by Zhevnov allowed the Paraguayan the simplest of finishes from barely a yard out.
But the drama was not done there, and Zenit regained the lead a minute later after a failed clearance by Pereira and a spill by Artur allowed Shirokov an open goal to give the Russian outfit a slender advantage heading into the second leg in Lisbon.