The first match of the 1/16 finals of the Europa League was held on the 17th of February. Zenit warmly welcomed its guests of honour from Spain. Even after analyzing the teams’ past games, it turned out to be very difficult to determine the favourite of the match. The confusion kept growing after the match ended. The bookmakers offered 50:50 odds of winning, which affected the rise in demand for live football betting.
Zenit entered the Europa League play-off from third place in Group H, with only Juventus and Chelsea ahead of them. This is the first official game of the players in two months. They had plenty of time for both active training and rest. Some of the team’s main players didn’t go through their preparation in full, which had a negative impact on their physical training.
On the other hand, Betis entered the finals of the Europa League from its second place in Group G, with only Bayer ahead of them. The guys are doing great in the championship; having won their last three games, they now appear to be an intimidating competitor. Their team spirit and active participation of the coaching staff in the games deserve special notice.
Still, the match turned out to be spectacular and full of offensive opportunities, so the audience did not have a chance to get bored. Even before the match, Zenit members looked tired – especially after their winter training. The game wasn’t fuelled by aggression. Why exert yourself and pressure your opponent when they practically hand you the goals? Zenit did go on the offensive and showed great defence, yet it’s difficult to say if any of the teams had a noticeable advantage. In cases like this, the totals, even/odd and double chance bets are most relevant.
All five goals were scored during the first half of the match. Zenit started off with its usual 4-4-2 and 4-3-3 strategies. The first few minutes of the match immediately proved that this was hardly a winning solution. During the break, the head coach Sergei Semak replaced two defenders and strengthened the defence. Thus, the scheme of the players on the field became 3-4-3. After the adjustments were made, the team looked much stronger, but they did not manage to even out the score. A game with an emphasis on defence prevented them from winning.
Zenit won 7 out of the 9 last games. The average of goals missed per game was 1.4; goals scored – 2.8. In their game against Betis, they made 9 shots on goal against their guests; 4 corner kicks, 16 fouls, 0 offsides.
Betis was prepared for the St. Petersburg club’s offensive and responded by directing its forces to the attack. Despite Fekir and Canales being absent, this strategy paid off. The Spanish players won the last three games. Average of goals missed per match – 1.4; goals scored – 2.6. In their game against St. Petersburg, they had 7 shots on goal, three of which reached their destination. Ball possession percentage – 59%; 9 corner shots, 8 fouls, 6 offsides.
From the very beginning of the match, the St. Petersburg team did not have the chance to take the initiative. Having made an unconfident entrance, they consistently demonstrated mistakes in both their offence and defence. Their defensive tactic didn’t even imply an active attack.
The play even of the most experienced Zenit players raised questions. Sergei Semak preferred to choose the experienced Mikhail Kerzhakov over the ambitious Odoyevsky. The 19-year-old goalkeeper Daniil Odoyevsky proved himself well during friendly matches during winter training. Mikhail Kerzhakov had to skip more than half of the games due to health issues, so putting him at the goal for his first match after a long pause did not seem like a good idea.
Yaroslav Rakitskyi looked a little lost on the field, at times even seeming helpless. It looked as if he was not interested in victory: he moved slowly, without much enthusiasm, not making an effort to turn certain situations into his favour. Obviously, the football player was not in an ideal physical condition. He was awarded the title of “the worst match player” for this game. Perhaps this behaviour is related to the fact that his contract is running out. In just about a few days, Yaroslav will have to decide whether to accept new contract terms Zenit has to offer or to become a free agent. Judging by his latest game, his chances of leaving the team have noticeably increased.
Even Artem Dzyuba’s performance wasn’t ideal: although being active during the game, the striker did not take his attacks to their logical conclusions and kept leaving his job half done. He managed to score a goal 25 minutes in; however, that was his only successful result.
In the 7th minute, Rakitskyi got a penalty for hitting Sabaly’s legs during a tackle. After the penalty kick, he could not prevent the Spanish player Guido Rodríguez from scoring.
Thanks to Willian José, the guest team’s score went up by one more point in the 18th minute of the match. Despite the evident psychological pressure, Zenit pulled themselves together and responded to their opponent with an attack with courage. In the next three minutes, two balls flew into the Spanish team’s goal (Dzyuba, Malcom).
The 41st minute shocked everyone: the third goal scored into Zenit’s net can be called a masterpiece created by the collective efforts of Rakitskiy and Kerzhakov. The St. Petersburg goalkeeper inaccurately passed the ball to Rakitskyi, who didn’t expect it at all. Ruibal and Guardado started aggressively fighting to get the ball, and thanks to their efforts, it ended up in the home team’s goal.
During the 66th minute in the second half, Kuzyayev had a chance to even the score, but his powerful kick sent the ball flying into a goalpost.
The match left everyone with a feeling of shame. And Zenit’s score wasn’t great either. The second match will be held on the 24th of February at the Benito Villamarín stadium in Seville.