Domenico Criscito of Zenit St. Petersburg was sent off after his second yellow card, in the 90th minute.
By ROB HUGHES
February 17, 2016
LONDON — No matter how hard UEFA tries to create a level playing field for clubs from Eastern Europe in the Champions League, it still is not working.
Zenit St. Petersburg, the hometown team of President Vladimir V. Putin of Russia, lost 1-0 to Benfica on Tuesday night. Chief among the reasons was that Zenit’s players were tired and gasping for air when time was added after the 90th minute, leaving them unable to prevent the only goal of the game.
That goal, beautifully headed by the Brazilian striker Jonas in the first minute of stoppage time, resulted from Benfica players’ being left undefended on a free kick. It directly followed a harsh red card awarded for a petty foul by Zenit defender Domenico Criscito in an area of the field where there was no need to attempt such a rash tackle.
But weariness is a state of mind, as well as an aching in the limbs. If Criscito had to make that play again, he would realize that the opponent he attempted to tackle from behind was moving away from goal. And he would recognize that the referee was filling in the names on his yellow card with the zeal of an autograph collector.
Criscito realized too late what he had done and how unforgiving referee Gianluca Rocchi, a fellow Italian, was. The referee dished out eight yellow cards, invariably for mistimed, rather than malicious, infringements.
Criscito received two of these and was dismissed at the end. Three other players will now be ruled out of the second leg in St. Petersburg in three weeks because of previously accumulated yellow cards.
The tide of cards, the number of stoppages and the nervousness of the players made this a poor and scrappy game, unfit for what should be Europe’s finest tournament.
And this is where the lack of evenness comes into play. Because of the long break through Russia’s harsh winter, Zenit had not played a competitive game for more than two months. Benfica had run through 14 league or cup matches in that time.
All the preparation that Zenit players had undertaken, including a training camp in Qatar and a week in Spain, could not prepare their bodies for Champions League combat on a warm night in Lisbon. It did not help that Zenit’s coach, André Villas-Boas, is an overly cautious strategist.
Villas-Boas, who happens to be Portuguese, admitted that his game plan was to hold Benfica scoreless and that he felt satisfied that his players would be in much better shape for the second leg in St. Petersburg.
He still has hope, because the stadium and the crowd in St. Petersburg can be, as Villas-Boas put it, uncomfortable for the visiting team. And with powerful finishers like Hulk and the 6-foot-5 Artyom Dzyuba, the coach thinks that Zenit can yet turn this around.
This will be Villas-Boas’s last season in Russia, after which he might return to Porto, where he made his mark as a coach. Zenit’s game plan had been to make it difficult for Renato Sanches, the 18-year-old midfield creator, to show his skills.
Sanches is good — so good that Liverpool, Arsenal, Chelsea, Manchester City, Manchester United, Bayern Munich and Barcelona have all reportedly scouted his progress — and Benfica has valued him at 80 million euros, or about $89.5 million. Stocky yet quick, and remarkably confident for his age, Sanches rarely found the freedom to demonstrate his skills on Tuesday.
The standout individual was Benfica’s left winger, Nicolás Gaitán, who was here, there and everywhere, combining industry with artistry as he tried to inject urgency to break the deadlock.
Fittingly, it was Gaitán who hit the pinpoint free kick that Jonas headed in from seven yards out in the 91st minute.
Jonas watched the kick from the right corner drop, and with deft and deliberate calmness, he simply guided the ball off his forehead between goalkeeper Yuri Lodygin and the post.
“This late goal might make our job easier in Russia,” said Júlio César, the veteran goalkeeper for Benfica. “Now, they will have to go for it and attack from the start, and we will have the possibility of exploiting the spaces they will open.”
It may be a more level field in that Zenit will have played two more games before the return match on March 9. And St. Petersburg might very well be a cold and inhospitable place for the Portuguese to visit.