Borussia Dortmund put one foot in the UEFA Champions League quarter-finals by securing an impressive 4-2 victory over Zenit St. Petersburg in Russia on Tuesday.
Bagging four away goals all but secures their passage despite the second leg to come, and barring a complete and utter disaster—although not uncommon for BVB this season—they can look forward to the next round with excitement.
The rusty Russians hadn't played a competitive game since the final group stage game in 2013 and it showed: Dortmund were 2-0 up after just six minutes following slack defending from Domenico Criscito and opportunistic finishing from Henrikh Mkhitaryan and Marco Reus.
The home side struggled to find an attacking foothold in the game for long periods, and Sebastian Kehl's midfield did a fantastic job squashing play and swarming the central zones. The chief issue quickly became the fact that Zenit's prime attacking spark, Hulk, was being marked out of the game.
It stood a simple, noticeable truth in among a whirlwind 90 minutes of chaotic twists and turns, and Luciano Spalletti's inability to free Hulk from his chains had a major effect on the result.
Both sides entered the game using their customary 4-2-3-1 formations, with Hulk starting high up on the right in Zenit's setup. On paper the physical Salomon Rondon would ordinarily cause BVB's back six fits and draw the focus, but his dream debut didn't pan out with his touch and instincts off.
In the absence of any speed—this Zenit team is largely bereft of it—or any sort of physical presence from Rondon, almost all of the attacking ingenuity was left at Hulk's feet.
Jurgen Klopp set up an intriguing three-man trap on the Brazilian to box him out of the final third and force him deep to find the ball, playing Kevin Grosskreutz in a defensive left-wing position and sticking Marcel Schmelzer tightly to him.
Nuri Sahin, the left-most of the two holding midfielders, also came across to seal off the inside, forcing Hulk back toward Aleksandar Anyukov or into being dispossessed cheaply.
It was reminiscent of Manchester United's treatment of Gareth Bale in 2012-13 and Aston Villa's assessment of Andros Townsend earlier this season. Ordinarily the method opens up reams of space for others, but Hulk's selfish mindset all but compounded the effectiveness of the tactic.
Firstly, the winger makes decisions extremely slowly; As in, passes to teammates three or four seconds too late, thus squandering the chance to quicken play and release others into zones that open up.
Second, the onus falling on him is just fine; he wants to be the centre of attention, and it's his wish to be the one-man savior of Russia on every Champions League stage.
He began to roam in-field and enjoyed a little more of the ball despite Grosskreutz following him, but those tendencies dried up after a promising 10-minute spell at the start of the second half. He slammed a penalty (that shouldn't have been awarded) in off the underside of the bar, but it ices a cake he doesn't really deserve.
Credit to Klopp for picking the right outlet to nullify and playing on Zenit's rustiness with a fast start. The rest of Europe should be frantically taking notes at this stage.