VALENCIA, Spain (AP) Hulk scored twice before Axel Witsel got the winner as Zenit St. Petersburg edged Valencia 3-2 in a thrilling Champions League opener in Group H on Wednesday.
Zenit coach Andre Villas-Boas’ strategy to absorb Valencia’s pressure and threaten on the break was executed to perfection by his Brazil striker.
Hulk drove in his first goal on the run in the ninth minute, and bettered that with a ferocious drive from outside the area to stun Mestalla Stadium three minutes before halftime.
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Valencia responded after the restart and Joao Cancelo was helped by Yuri Lodygin’s poor goalkeeping to pull one back in the 54th before substitute Andre Gomes briefly equalized at 2-2 in the 73rd.
But three minutes later Witsel scored from long distance to restore the Russian’s advantage for good.
”(Hulk) makes the difference when he needs to,” said Villas-Boas. ”At 2-2, it could have gone either way. It was very important for us to score then so we could boost our confidence and withstand Valencia’s pressure.”
Also in Group H, newcomer AA Ghent clung to a 1-1 draw with Lyon despite finishing with nine men.
Zenit’s first win in eight visits to Spain will come as some relief to the beleaguered Villas-Boas, who has been banned from six matches in the Russian league for striking a match official and has vowed to leave the club after this season.
Valencia made a promising start, holding possession and coming close to an early goal when Cancelo struck a long ball off the post in the second minute.
But Daniel ”Danny” Alves sped down the middle of the pitch before laying off for Hulk to drive a left-footed effort under goalkeeper Jaume Domenech, who was playing his first Champions League match just four days after making his debut in the Spanish league.
Hulk’s second goal was simply eye-popping, as he unleashed a 25-meter missile over Domenech after he was set up by Artem Dzyuba, who headed a long pass back to his unmarked strike partner.
Cancelo caught Lodygin off his near post to pull a goal back for the hosts.
Valencia pressed for a second goal that came when Gomes slotted in the equalizer, only for Witsel to hit a shot off the post and into the bottom corner.
”The match didn’t go as we wanted,” Valencia’s Gomes said. ”We wanted to turn it around but couldn’t pull it off. We knew we had to risk it everything, and a miscue by us meant they scored the winner.”