Stoppage-time header vaults Benfica past Zenit Saint Petersburg

Benfica’s Jonas celebrates scoring the opening goal during a Champions League Round of 16 first leg soccer match between Benfica and Zenit at Benfica's Luz stadium in Lisbon, Portugal, Tuesday, Feb. 16, 2016. (AP Photo/Armando Franca)

An unlikely stoppage-time header by Jonas snagged a 1-0 victory for Benfica in the first leg of its Champions League round of 16 clash with Zenit Saint Petersburg.

The reigning Portuguese champions were terrible with their set-piece deliveries all evening until Nicolas Gaitan curled a tempting ball into the box from 30 yards out, which Jonas met amid a group of defenders and guided into the bottom right-hand corner:

The free kick came directly after a second yellow was shown to Zenit left back Domenico Criscito, which forced the visitors to 10 men. Replays indicated it was a harsh decision, with Criscito slightly bumping Benfica’s Andre Almeida from behind and grazing his foot with the challenge.

Criscito will now miss the return leg in Saint Petersburg on March 9, as will midfield stalwart Javi Garcia, whose equally questionable handball infraction in the 59th minute knocks him out due to yellow card accumulation.

Zenit hadn’t played in over two months thanks to Russia’s extended winter break, but in a way, Zenit molded its tactics around knocking off the rust. Several veteran players, including Garcia, had played for Benfica earlier in their careers, and they knew what to expect at the Estádio da Luz.

So Zenit organized itself in the back, absorbed pressure and only offered sporadic threat going forward. The Russian side didn’t figure to be sharp in passing or finishing, but it didn’t need to be.

At least until Benfica scored late, and in truth, the goal had been coming for awhile. Benfica inched closer and closer throughout the second half, and Gaitain had a point-blank chance saved in the 68th minute:

Benfica now carries an advantage into the second leg, which is important considering Zenit hasn’t lost at home in any competition since Aug. 29. An early away goal would give Benfica, which has already won at Atletico Madrid in this season’s Champions League, one foot in the quarterfinals.

Zenit may have had a lot of time off, but challenges have returned in a hurry.

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