17.02.2022

Zenit roaring comeback blunted after shaky start 

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Zenit St. Petersburg 2-3 Real Betis
UEFA Europa League Playoff Round, 1st Leg
Thursday 17 February, Gazprom Arena 

Goals: Zenit - Dzyuba 23', Malcom 27'; Betis - Rodriguez 7', Willian Jose 17', Guardado 41'

Zenit were frozen out on their return to competitive action after the winter break as Betis bludgeoned their way into a two-goal lead inside 17 minutes, and leave their European dreams seemingly in early tatters - only for a roller-coaster comeback inside half an hour. 

Betis club legend Joaquín, who turns 41 in July, curled a delicious free kick into the danger area on seven minutes for Guido Rodriguez to steal in under little pressure to bullet home. Ten minutes later, Willian Jose was brutal in his efficiency as he tore at the defence before lashing a laser-guided rocket in off the post with Mikhail Kerzhakov stranded. 

Sergey Semak's men didn't lose all hope though. After the shaky start they strung a beautiful short-passing move together that involved all the Brazilians; Douglas Santos cut inside to find space for Wendel, Malcom and Claudinho, ultimately feeding Artem Dzyuba deep in the Betis box but with back to goal. He kept his head and teed up Malcom for a shot, but it was blocked. 

No matter; a minute later, another breathless flowing attack down the right saw Malcom time his pass down the channel for Vyacheslav Karavaev to perfection, and his hanging cross was Dzyuba's bread and butter to thump home a rousing goal. 

As the Gazprom roared into life, the raucous fans didn't have long to wait for more. Santos found Wendel lurking outside the area, and the midfielder's first-time pass released Malcom into the area to slam an equaliser across keeper Rui Silva. 

Ten minutes before the break, Dzyuba sent another clean header over Silva from Malcom's swinging cross, but the Portuguese keeper flung a vital fingertip save to deny him. There was no question who was in the ascendancy at this stage. 

Five minutes before the break, however, all the momentum was sucked out of Zenit in one disastrous moment. Kerzhakov's pass out of defence was misplaced ahead of Yaroslav Rakitsky, and his slide couldn't stop Aitor Ruibal nipping in to snatch possession and instantly release Andrés Guardado into unexpected space on the edge of the box. The Mexican kept his cool to curl his side's third goal. 

Danil Krugovoy and Andrey Mostovoy came on for Rakitsky and Karavaev att the break to add fresh legs and attacking impetus, and the latter almost played a crucial role in another equaliser. Wendel patiently waited for Mostovoy to make space, and the Russian international's first-time touch allowed Claudinho to pick out Dzyuba behind the back line. His shot was skewed inches wide - only for the offside flag to be raised anyway. 

Krugovoy came close himself after a neat one-two set him racing into the Betis box, but the ball was whisked off his feet at the last moment. 

Big winter signing Yuri Alberto was handed his Zenit debut midway through the second period with his new side still a goal down. Within moments he was involved, collecting the ball from Santos and feeding Malcom on the edge of the box to slide in Daler Kuzyaev - now playing at right wing-back - with a perfectly weighted through ball. His shot rocketed off the underside of the crossbar and agonisingly out. 

Ivan Sergeev was called into action for his debut too, with little over quarter of an hour to go for a tiring Dzyuba. He continued the same role, making a nuisance of himself for defenders and showing glimpses of an early understanding with fellow newcomer Alberto. In added time, Sergeev chested a deep cross down for his Brazilian strike partner for what would have been a certain goal had it not been for German Pezzella's last-ditch slide tackle. 

Although Zenit dominated the majority of chances and possession in the final stages, the Spanish visitors left with a major advantage heading into the return leg next week. 

The return leg in Seville will take place on Thursday 24 February.


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