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Zenit caught with their Guardado down

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Real Betis narrowly beat Zenit St. Petersburg 3-2 in Russia to give themselves a slender lead ahead of their UEFA Europa League (UEL) play-off 2nd leg next week in Seville. The result means the ‘Zeniters’ have succumbed to defeat at home for the first time since October 2021.

The fixture was the first-ever competitive meeting between the two sides, with the visitors from Spain venturing to St. Petersburg backed by just twelve fans due to current world events. The brave dozen’s efforts for making the 4,000km trip were quickly rewarded, when the in-form ‘Verdiblancos’ stormed ahead in the eighth minute, as Guido Rodríguez headed in from close range. Zenit hadn’t played a competitive league fixture since December 12, and their rustiness saw Betis net against just ten minutes later. Manuel Pellegrini’s team charged forward as the ‘Zeniters’ defence backed off, allowing Willian José to unleash a thumping strike from the edge of the area that cannoned in off the post.

Though looking sorely outclassed, the home side did not let their heads drop, responding moments later when Zenit’s top goalscorer this season, Artem Dzyuba, met a majestic ball into the area from Vyacheslav Karavayev with his head, to shake off his team’s slow start to the game and lift the mood inside the Gazprom Arena. They then completed a quickfire turnaround by pulling level in the 29th minute, as Wendel’s delightful pass was received by Malcolm, who made no mistake in front of goal. There would be one final twist just before HT though, as José Guardado fired in to restore Betis’ lead, after being played in following a defensive catastrophe in the hosts’ back line.

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After a breathtaking first half, the pace of the game slowed as Sergei Semak’s side once again searched for an opening to pull themselves level. They rolled the dice, altering their formation to play three men at the back, and it almost paid off when Daler Kuzyayev’s bullet strike smashed against the crossbar, after Malcolm had fed him through. There was certainly a sense that there was another goal in the game despite the second half’s low-key action, but Kuzyayev’s chance remained the only highlight, as Betis managed to hang on.

The win for Real Betis means they are in pole position to reach their first Round of 16 appearance since 2013/14. On top of that, the ‘Verdiblancos’ have now won five consecutive games away from home in all competitions, scoring a whopping 17 goals. As for Zenit they are now in real danger of seeing a second consecutive run in this competition’s knockout stage end at the hands of Spanish opposition.

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