Benfica seemed to be coasting toward the quarterfinals in their first leg trip to Russia only for Zenit to score a pair of incredible goals to come away with a 3-2 aggregate win. Roman Shirokov, who scored twice, provided Zenit with an unscripted lift. More remarkable is that Zenit did it without star playmaker Danny, injured and out for the season, and arguably, without a goalkeeper.
The two away goals Benfica scored were both gifted by Zenit backup goalkeeper Yuri Zhevnov. Zhevnov first failed to hold an early free kick to gift Maxi Pereira a goal, then was culpable again in the 87th minute when Oscar Cardozo got Benfica’s second. It was one of the worst performances by a keeper at this level, and seemed to have sunk Zenit’s hopes.
But Zenit came back through Sergei Semak’s 71st minute back-heel strike that will be remembered as one of the goals of the year in Europe. It was a remarkable piece of magic that revived what had appeared to be a lost Zenit cause.
The trick now for manager Luciano Spalletti is to get the balance right for the return match. He must solve the problems of a questionable defense, without letting his team fall into a shell that Benfica will attack relentlessly at all costs. He also cannot call upon Andrei Arshavin — the former Arsenal man is cup-tied.
But Benfica enter the game bruised. They saw a 2-1 lead vanish at home against Porto, goals from Cristian Rodriguez and Maicon wiping out a pair from Cardozo, that allowed their arch-rivals to move clear atop the league.
That was a particularly bitter blow for the Lisbon reds, whose rebirth as a major force at home and in Europe this season remains based on a fragile foundation. There is plenty of attacking flair to go along with Oscar Cardozo, but the defense has been inconsistent, leaving Benfica needing to outscore opponents.
Benfica needs at least one goal at home this time – thanks to their two away goals – but judging by the past performance, you’d expect both teams to run and gun. That is surely what Zenit will do: attacking has been Spalletti’s approach throughout the European campaign.
The London match would already seem to be decided, as AC Milan comes to the Emirates with a 4-0 lead following their mauling of a depleted Arsenal side. Yet, Gunners manager Arsene Wenger claims his charges, led by the red-hot Robin van Persie, are capable of overcoming their dire situation.
Certainly, the last two games have given London fans cause to dream. First, they came back to win 5-2 in audacious fashion against Tottenham, after conceding two early goals. This past weekend, the Gunners stole a 2-1 win Saturday over Liverpool in a game where they were clearly outplayed. The voluble and valuable keeper Wojciech Szczesny made no bones about that game, saying bluntly, “We got away with murder – in the first half we were killed all over the park.”
Still, they face a Milan team who were so dominant in their first leg win that Wenger called out his team in public, labeling the performance his side’s “worst-ever” in Europe. In fact, the Serie A leaders were worth even more than the four-goal margin they constructed and only the most hopeful of the Arsenal faithful will go to the Emirates expecting anything more than a battle for pride.
Arsenal does have a strong attacking team – and as the manager suggested this week, they can score goals in bunches. The problem is that they also concede them in alarming numbers. And yet, Arsenal have no alternative but to throw everything at the visitors from Milan and hope.
The pluses are clear. Van Persie has to be considered the most valuable player in the entire Premier League this season, and with Bacary Sagna back to fly up the flank and provide support, the Gunners are always a threat to score. Arsenal has also shown heart, so it will not be a surprise if they play well and even defeat a forceful Milan team.
Yet, where the Gunners fall apart is at the back. Thomas Vermaelen has yet to recover from the string of injuries that have made him less an iron man and more a sieve. Even with Szczesny at goalkeeper, Arsenal tends to leave the talented Polish footballer with a disorganized back line.
That line will be tested in a revitalized Zlatan Ibrahimovic. Milan has a scorer of RVP’s caliber and there seems little argument that the Italian defense is the better of the two. So, it’s likely a bridge too far to expect Arsenal to make the tie interesting.
Rather, the Gunners probably should concentrate on saving some face and winning the night. Then they can return to their other challenge: qualifying for the Champions League again next season.