Zenit St Petersburg will take a commanding lead to Anfield next week after a 2-0 victory over Liverpool in the first leg of their Europa League last-32 tie on a chilly night in Russia.
The home side’s midfield was able to dominate the match for large spells and the Russian champions will doubtless feel that they were good value for their advantage provided them by quick-fire second-half goals from Hulk and Sergei Semak. However, Liverpool, and in particular Luis Suarez, are likely to rue missing a host of clear chances that would have at least given them a potentially priceless away goal.
Liverpool boss Brendan Rodgers fielded a strong lineup featuring Suarez and Steven Gerrard, fully realizing that the competition now represents his last chance of tangible success in his first season in charge.
Despite the conditions and a less than ideal playing surface, it was a match that had plenty of entertainment throughout.
At half time there was sense of disbelief that the match remained goalless. Zenit largely controlled possession and twice came agonizingly close to breaking the deadlock, while at the other end Liverpool consistently exposed vulnerabilities in the home side’s back line but were unable to capitalize.
A sign of the plethora of goalmouth action that was to follow was provided in the first two minutes. After barely 60 seconds many inside the Stadion Petrovski could have been forgiven for thinking that Zenit had already grabbed the lead as forward Aleksandr Kerzhakov shot toward goal from the center of the box but Pepe Reina did brilliantly to get across low to his right and keep the ball out.
Almost immediately, Liverpool went up the other end and Glen Johnson produced a fine ball over the top of Luis Neto for Suarez. The Uruguayan turned the recent signing from Siena inside and out, but fired a low shot wide of the far post.
Liverpool were struggling to get to grips with Zenit in the midfield and their failure to close down Hulk as he came in from the right and ambled through the middle meant that Reina again had to make a good save to turn the Brazilian’s shot behind.
On 28 minutes, Hulk was able to beat the impressive Reina with a shot from the right of the box that went under the Liverpool keeper, but this time the post prevented the former Porto man from putting his side ahead.
It was Suarez, though, that had the most frustrating night in front of goal. For all Zenit’s superiority, their back line continued to be found wanting. Suarez was gifted a golden opportunity when Nicolas Lombaerts presented the ball straight at the forward’s feet allowing him a clean run on goal form 30 yards out. Suarez’s close control unusually deserted him, though, as he took far too heavy a touch to go round Malafeev and Lombaerts was able to get back and block the shot from the angle.
Suarez was again left with a rankled expression as he missed yet another opportunity to get a vital away goal five minutes before the interval. Raheem Sterling put an inviting low ball across the six-yard box, but, unmarked, Suarez tried an audacious flick that went wide of the near post.
Suarez’s poor half was rounded out as he failed to make the most of a trademark raking pass from Gerrard that found him in the box.
The second period continued in much the same vain as Liverpool continued to create plenty of opportunities at the expense of a struggling Zenit back line.
Johnson was allowed to burst through the home defense and far too easily past Lombaerts and into the box but Vyacheslav Malafeev came to the rescue to get a block on the Liverpool full-back’s poked effort on goal.
There was also another near miss from Suarez as he curled just wide from the edge of the box.
The misses would prove costly, with Zenit about to make the visitors pay in ruthless fashion for their profligacy.
Having already been denied by Reina and the post, Hulk made no mistake to send Zenit on their way to a first-leg lead on 69 minutes. The powerful forward was again allowed too much space and this time made them pay with a trademark powerful drive from 25 yards that may have had the slight aid of a deflection off former Zenit defender Martin Skrtel soared past Reina and into the top corner.
Liverpool failed to recover from the goal and the increase in decibel level form the Zenit fans and soon found themselves staring at a two-goal deficit. A low ball from Alexander Anyukov on the right was allowed to travel all the way across the face of goal to the unmarked substitute Semak to finish at the back post.
Liverpool briefly mounted some pressure to try and force a goal that would have changed the complexion of the tie, but Suarez was again denied from a free-kick and Stewart Downing’s effort was blocked from the rebound.