Lisbon: Portugal recorded a priceless 1-0 victory over Russia in their qualifier at the Estadio da Luz on Friday to keep their 2014 World Cup hopes well and truly alive.
Helder Postiga scored the game`s only goal after just nine minutes with a close-range volley from Miguel Veloso`s free-kick to send Portugal into a two-point lead atop Group F, though Fabio Capello`s men still hold two games in hand.
After winning their first four games in Group F, Russia were expected to make life very difficult for the Seleccao, but ultimately were hugely disappointing in Lisbon as the hosts clinched victory with little trouble to put pressure back on third-placed Israel.
With Pepe suspended, Paulo Bento handed a competitive debut to Luis Neto in defence, with Nani benched in favour of Vieirinha on the right flank, while Russia saw captain Igor Denisov return to the starting XI.
The visitors were on the back foot right from the start, and it was no surprise to see them concede after only nine minutes after a strong beginning from an inspired Portugal side.
Veloso whipped in a free-kick from the left, and Postiga glided in unmarked to neatly volley the ball home at the back post – the first goal conceded by Russia in World Cup qualifying.
It was all Portugal as the first half progressed, with Russia barely able to get out of their own half. Capello clearly recognized the need to shake things up, and hauled off Viktor Faizulin after only 21 minutes for Denis Glushakov.
And the Russia coach was forced to make another early change after half an hour, as Aleksandr Anyukov departed after struggling with an injury, with Aleksey Kozlov replacing him.
Portugal should have been two goals to the good immediately after, when Joao Moutinho picked out Vieirinha on the right, who in turn squared to Cristiano Ronaldo, but the Real Madrid man spooned his shot over from 12 yards.
And the hosts were fortunate that their profligacy was not punished when a flapping punch by Rui Patricio left him out of position and presented the ball to Dmitri Kombarov, who teed up Glushakov for a shot that rolled wide of an empty net.
Momentum began to swing in Russia’s favour as the half ended, and Portugal were left counting their blessings again when Fabio Coentrao’s trailing arm made contact with the ball inside the area, but the officials decided against awarding a penalty.
But Ronaldo attempted to put his side back into the ascendancy at the start of the second half, driving narrowly wide before testing Igor Akinfeev at his near post with a low shot after racing past the last defender.
The second half seemed to be shaping up in much the same pattern as the first, with Portugal in control, but they were given a reminder of Russia’s quality when Aleksandr Kerzhakov sprinted behind Bruno Alves, but Patricio was there to smother at the near post.
And Vladimir Bystrov nearly brought the visitors level in stunning fashion with 22 minutes remaining, but fired narrowly over the bar after connecting perfectly with an overhead kick.
Both sides then spurned gloious chances late on: Roman Shirokov firing right at Patricio from a gilt-edged position before Ronaldo was thwarted by a brilliant Akinfeev save with two minutes left.
But by then, Bento`s men had done enough to ensure themselves the victory, which puts them top of the standings and leaves Group F wide open.