Rui Vitoria hailed Benfica for showing “the mentality of big champions” as they defeated Zenit to secure a place in the Champions League quarter-finals.
Zenit thought they had done enough to force extra-time at the Petrovsky Stadium on Wednesday when Hulk headed in Yuri Zhirkov’s cross to level the two-legged last-16 tie at 1-1.
However, Benfica – leading 1-0 from the first leg – struck late as first captain Nicolas Gaitan headed home the rebound after Raul Jimenez’s audacious long-range effort struck the woodwork, before Talisca struck deep into injury time to secure a 2-1 win on the night and 3-1 aggregate triumph.
And head coach Vitoria praised the defensive solidarity of his side that he felt laid the foundations for their victory.
“All the players have had a fantastic attitude. Our team knew what was coming here and we were always organised defensively,” he said.
“We came with the mission to defend well and make goals and we did that. We have an amazing group of players who deserve all this. This victory is theirs, including the ones who stayed back in Lisbon because of injury.
“It was a deserved win for a team that managed to keep their focus even after conceding a goal. We kept faith and showed the mentality of big champions.”
Benfica’s victory was even more impressive as midfielder Andreas Samaris had to play as a makeshift centre-back due to Jardel’s suspension and Luisao’s broken arm.
Samaris impressed at the heart of defence, as did back-up goalkeeper Ederson, who made his Champions League debut due to Julio Cesar’s thigh injury.
“I’m delighted, working daily and taking advantage of the opportunities,” Ederson said. “Now we’re going to enjoy this victory.
“Zenit has a very strong offensive line, but we also have plenty of quality and we showed it. Zenit attacked more, looking for the goal, but we were able to hold them.
“Then they scored and levelled the tie, but we reacted very well, showing an amazing and very positive spirit.”
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