Benfica secured their place in the Champions League quarter finals after two late goals confirmed a 2-1 second leg victory over Zenit.
Nicolas Gaitan managed to cancel out Hulk’s opener last night five minutes from time to leave Zenit devastated, and substitute Talisca won the tie with his very last kick in Saint Petersburg to pick up a 3-1 aggregate win.
So now Benfica, who had won only once in seven previous visits to Russia, are finally in the last eight stage for the first time since 2012. They have joined Real Madrid and Wolfsburg in next week’s draw.
Despite Benfica’s 1-0 lead at Petrovsky Stadium from the first leg, the returned leg continued to some extent a cagey affair with few chances.
Zenit will rue several missed chances in the second half at the Petrovsky Stadium as their dream of reaching the Champions League last eight for the first time eventually died in the chill of Saint Petersburg.
The Russian club’s Portuguese coach Andre Villas-Boas, who will leave them at the end of this season, has hurt Benfica badly in the past when in charge of Porto and he would have been confident enough to turn this tie around against a diminished visiting side. The Portuguese league leaders were without the service of a host of key players due to injury and suspension, including towering centre-back Luisao, Jardel, Lisandro Lopez, Andre Almeida and goalkeeper Julio Cesar.
Meanwhile, in the fourth minute, Benfica almost scored through Jonas as his free-kick was tipped over the bar by Yuri Lodygin impressively.
For Zenit, the best opportunity before the break came to their in-form forward Artem Dzyuba who reached a Danny flick-on in time and seemed ready to slot home, but Benfica’s second-choice goalkeeper, an inexperienced 22 year old Ederson ( in for the injured Julio Cesar) punched the ball away perfectly.
After what it looked a quiet opening 15 minutes in the second half, Zenit manager Andre Villas-Boas then made two substitutes and the tactical brilliance saw Zenit applying more pressure on their Portuguese opponents.
And in the 69th minute, Zenit ultimately levelled the match thanks to Hulk after the former Chelsea winger Yury Zhirkov burst past Nelson Samedo crossing into the middle for the Brazilian to nod home with a point-blank range header.
It was just minutes later and goalkeeper Lodygin once again saved Zenit as he brilliantly turned away a header from Victor Lindelof.
Villas-Boas’ side then nearly grabbed a second goal as Dzyuba ran through the middle of the Benfica defence and had his shot nicely blocked by Ederson.
But the tie quickly shifted momentum when Benfica took the much anticipated lead through Gaitan. From what it seemed out of nowhere, substitute Raul Jimenez blasted a powerful strike from distance tipped onto the bar, before Gaitan ran in on the rebound to tap in.
Gaitan’s goal was may be enough for Benfica but the visitors completed a 3-1 aggregate victory six minutes into added time when Gaitan again burst forward, and the ball fell to Talisca who then struck the ball in to secure Benfica’s passage to the last-eight of this season’s Champions League.
With five of his first-choice defenders and his No1 goalkeeper missing, Rui Vitoria’s options for Benfica’s defence were very limited to say the minimum.
Also, Manchester United’s long-term target 18-year-old Renato Sanches provided another performance in midfield which belied his age, tried to frustrate the visitors and it worked for the first hour.
Obviously it was a tough test of his coaching mettle and the Portuguese handled it brilliantly. He opted for Andreas Samaris at centre-back and the Greek international was like a colossus in St Petersburg, neutralizing Zenit’s vaunted attack frequently to help the Eagles into the UEFA Champions League quarter-finals.