Russia and Portugal meet in Moscow on Friday in a match that is likely to go a long way to deciding which of the two nations grab the hotly desired automatic qualifying spot from Group F en route to the 2014 World Cup.
Both sides, as expected, have begun their campaigns with two wins and are already five points clear of the other four teams in the section—Luxembourg, Northern Ireland, Azerbaijan and Israel.
Things almost horribly wrong for Portugal in their opening qualifier, though, as they fell behind in Luxembourg before recovering for an unconvincing 2-1 victory.
Against Russia, coach Paulo Bento may be forced into making rare changes to what has been a settled Portugal lineup in recent times. Talisman Cristiano Ronaldo and his Real Madrid teammate Pepe are still doubtful as they recover from their respective injuries, while former Chelsea midfielder Raul Meireles was unable to complete the team’s final training session.
Bento’s opposite number Fabio Capello is very much still trying to put his mark on the Russia team after taking over ahead of the qualification campaign. It has been a case of so far so good for the former England manager with six goals scored and none conceded in his two competitive matches in charge.
After the disappointment of failing to qualify from a weak group at Euro 2012, Capello is eager to show he can get Russia to win when the pressure is on.
"We should not be calling this match a decider," Capello said, according to FIFA.com. "But we have all the incentive—we should be ready to win a big match."
Capello has again decided against calling up the high-profile experienced duo of Andrey Arshavin and Pavel Pogrebnyak. Captain Igor Denisov has been included, though, despite being forced to train with the youth team at his club, Zenit St Petersburg, after speaking out against the wages being paid to new signings Hulk and Axel Witsel.
D: Anyukov, Berezoutskiy, Ignashevich, Kombarov
M: Denisov, Glushakov
Dzagoev, Shirokov, Bystrov
D: Pereira, Alves, Pepe, Coentrao
M: Micael, Moutinho, Veloso
F: Nani, Postiga, Ronaldo
Prediction: While Portugal are spared traveling to Russia in the heart of winter, no team is overly eager to play on the synthetic pitch of Moscow’s Luzhniki Stadium. For Russia, playing in front of a potential crowd of 70,000, they will be looking to eviscerate the memory of a humiliating 7-1 defeat to Portugal in Lisbon back in 2004.
It is hard to envisage a one-sided score line even approaching that result and Friday’s contest should be a tightly-fought affair right to the last.
Portugal will be doubtless looking to take advantage of their pace out wide on the counter and expose a Russian defense that isn’t the strongest. Russia also have their own dangermen with their goal threat likely to come from Alan Dazgoev and Roman Shirokov breaking from midfield.
With Portugal struggling away from home in qualifying for Euro 2012, losing in both Norway and Denmark, Russia may just sneak the all-important three points.
Where to watch: The 2014 World Cup qualifier kicks-off from Moscow’s Luzhiniki Stadium at 11 a.m. ET. Coverage will be provided by ESPN2, with a live stream available on ESPN3.