Spartak Moscow kept their hope of qualifying for the knockout stages of the Champions League alive by deservedly edging out Benfica 2-1 in a crunch Group G clash at the Luzhniki Stadium on Tuesday evening.
The hosts broke the deadlock with less than three minutes played, Rafael Carioca finishing off a wonderful breakaway from deep inside their own half, but their Portuguese opponents levelled matters courtesy of a near-post header from Lima half an hour later.
However, Jardel, under pressure from Ari, put through his own goal shortly before the interval and Spartak held on to their slender advantage in the face of incessant late pressure from Benfica to register their first points of their Champions League campaign.
Spartak, who had blown 2-1 leads in their opening two games, against Barcelona and Celtic, made a storming start and could easily have been ahead inside a minute, with Ari picking out Diniyar Bilyaletdinov unmarked in the area only for Artur to parry the former Everton man’s towering header away to safety.
Still, the home fans would not have to wait much long to see their side go ahead. Bilyaletdinov pounced on a loose pass from Nemanja Matic in Spartak territory and surged forward before moving the ball onto Jurado. The on-loan Schalke attacker held it up superbly, waiting until the last possible second before slipping the supporting Rafael Carioca in on goal. The Brazilian demonstrated just as much poise and composure in drawing out Artur before coolly prodding the ball past his compatriot.
It should have been 2-0 just over 20 minutes later but Ari volleyed against the bar after being picked out at the back post by a terrific cross from Jano Ananidze. Almost inevitably, the striker’s profligacy was punished almost immediately, Lima heading home an equally inviting delivery, this time from Salvio from wide on the right after Spartak had failed to fully clear a Benfica corner.
The momentum appeared now very much with the visitors but, credit to Spartak, they first reclaimed the initiative, and then the lead when Jardel bundled a dangerous cross from Evgeni Makeev into his own net, after the latter had been released into space by a defence-splitting pass from his captain, Dmitri Kombarov.
Spartak began the second half as promisingly and menacingly as they had the first and nearly doubled their advantage on 55 minutes but Ari failed to get enough purchase on Ananidze’s low ball across the six-yard box and the former AZ forwad’s back-heeled effort was easily saved by Artur.
It was Benfica, though, who should have struck next, with the otherwise impressive Makeev gifting Salvio the opportunity to equalise by making a mess of an attempted header back to his goalkeeper. However, luckily for the Spartak right-back, the Argentine fired wide with the goal at his mercy.
Despite dominating territory and possession in the final quarter, winless Benfica would not go so close again to snatching a point, meaning they drop to the bottom of the group and must now triumph in their return clash with Spartak in Lisbon to retain any chance of reaching the last 16.