Luciano Spalletti was confident in his side’s ability to earn a victory at home against FC Porto. Apart from Spalletti’s peculiar comments on obstacles and weather conditions, the Zenit manager believed quality would outshine tactics. “When both teams have a number of talented individuals, then it is not the tactical nuances that decide the outcome but how the key players perform. The result will also be determined by the mentality and the team spirit shown,” Spalletti said.
Spalletti’s comments were peculiar, but when Norwegian referee Tom Harald Hagen blew his final whistle at the Petrovsky Stadium, his prediction was justified.
Porto was dominant for majority of the first half, as they continued to implement their high-pressing game, and Zenit were unable to settle. Axel Witsel and Viktor Fayzulin couldn’t get a touch on the ball as Porto quickly circulated passes around the Zenit midfield, and Paulo Fonseca’s men worked twice as hard to retain possession, when they gave it away cheaply. Fernando and Steven Defour glided between the Porto centre backs to receive the ball and continuously build plays, and Zenit didn’t attempt to pressure the midfield duo as they dictated the tempo of the match.
Surprisingly, Zenit’s shape without the ball was disjointed. There were large gaps of space between the lines for Josue and Lucho Gonzalez to slide into to receive the ball. While Jackson Martinez enjoyed his best spell in the opening hour, dropping deep to link play and making intelligent diagonal runs.
The most alarming feat was the tactical naivety from Hulk and Oleg Shatov, who completely ignored their defensive duties.
While this could’ve been Spalletti’s aim to hit Porto on the counter, it was nearly suicidal, as Alex Sandro and Danilo – arguably the best fullback duo in Europe – constantly drove into advanced positions.
Varela and Alex Sandro shared Porto’s highest pass combination throughout the match, whereas Danilo’s cross from the right flank created Lucho Gonzalez’s terrific headed goal.
However, Porto’s lead was short-lived as their back four was responsible for their second mental lapse in the span of four days. Zenit’s first patch of composed possession resulted in Domenico Criscito combining with Witsel, who back-heeled the ball to Roman Shirokov. Shirokov’s heavy touch guided the ball into the 18-yard box, and an unmarked Hulk pounced on the loose ball, and rounded Helton, thus handing Zenit a fortuitous equalizer.
Despite Porto’s superiority in possession, Zenit gave the Portuguese champions a few scares on the break. Considering the Russian side’s inability to move forward as a unit and Porto committing men forward, this was a risky, yet logical approach from Spalletti. In the eighth minute, Shirokov played a simple ball over the top of the Porto defence that Hulk latched onto, and the Brazilian squared it to Witsel, who fired his shot over the net. Approximately 30 minutes later, Hulk triggered the break as he played a simple straight ball into the right channel for Aleksandr Kerzhakov. The Russian striker played a ball to the edge of the box for Shatov, and the Zenit midfielder squared it onto the path of Fayzulin, who fired his shot directly at Helton.
Fonseca was aware of Zenit’s legitimate threat on the break, but the Portuguese manager failed to adjust his shape in the second half to prevent being overrun in midfield. Zenit approached the second half with more energy and belief and they began to press Defour and Fernando, while their shape in midfield gradually improved. Lucho and Martinez were peripheral figures, as Porto penetrated wide areas for the remainder of the match.
The main issue with Porto’s shape was they committed so many men high up the pitch, and they were unable to retreat into position during Zenit’s quick transitions on the counter. Although Danilo and Alex Sandro possess great threats out wide, there’s no need for both fullbacks to push forward, whereas Lucho should’ve dropped deeper to assure Porto’s dominance in midfield.
Zenit’s second half resurgence was highlighted in the 50th minute, when Shatov closed down Nicolas Otamendi and deflected his pass towards Shirokov, in Porto’s third. Shirokov played in Shatov and his attempted cross hit Otamendi in the hand, earning Spalletti’s men a penalty. Shockingly, Hulk stepped up to the spot and hit a tame shot that Helton comfortably saved.
With 30 minutes left in the match, Porto’s press diminished due to fatigue and Zenit’s threat on the break increased. Alex Sandro brought down Hulk, after Tomas Hubocan drove through midfield from his 18-yard box and played the Brazilian winger free. Then Hulk turned provider and played another ball into the right channel for Kerzhakov, who fed Shatov, and this time he back-heeled the ball to Andrey Arshavin, who was denied by Helton.
Fonseca made attacking player swaps to implement a larger threat in the final third, but Porto’s approach was unchanged. On the other hand, Spalletti’s decision to introduce Arshavin was positive, as it led to more activity in Porto’s third. The Russian winger played clever passes and crosses in advanced areas, produced penetrating runs on the left flank, and displayed a bit of trickery, whilst helping his side maintain possession. Zenit were denied a stonewall penalty in the final minutes of the match when Arshavin drove at the heart of the Porto defence and played in Hulk, who got a yard ahead of Eliaquim Mangala with a step over, and was pulled down inside the box.
Porto spent majority of the second half trying to create chances from wide areas but the quality from their wide players was poor. Fonseca witnessed his side over commit players in attack, and were fortunate not to concede a goal on break, as Helton made a few key saves to preserve the draw. It’s been a recurring theme in Porto’s season thus far – Start the match with intense pressing and dictate possession, but slowly fade away in the latter stages when energy levels dip, leaving them vulnerable against counters, due to a lack of natural balance.
Fonseca’s tactical shrewdness was anonymous as he watched his key players fade in the second half. Performances of this stature should worry Porto fans that demand better performances in Europe’s most prestigious tournament. More so, this result sets up an interesting conclusion to Group G, as second place is still up for grabs.