Moscow: An early goal from Aleksandr Kerzhakov was enough to hand Russia all three points against Portugal in Moscow.
The Zenit St Petersburg man fired past Rui Patricio with just six minutes on the clock, and despite the visitors enjoying 70% of possession for the majority of the match, Fabio Capello`s men were able to hold on for a crucial victory as Sergey Ignashevich put in an indomitable display at the heart of the defence.
The visitors were buoyed by the inclusion of Cristiano Ronaldo in the starting line-up, with the Real Madrid superstar having recovered from a shoulder injury sustained in last weekend’s Clasico in time to feature on Friday.
Capello was without Premier League duo Andrey Arshavin and Pavel Pogrebnyak, so the burden of orchestrating the hosts’ attacks was once again placed on the young shoulders of Alan Dzagoev, who lit up the early rounds of Euro 2012 with his displays.
Russia got off to the best possible start after just six minutes, when Roman Shirokov found Kerzhakov with an incisive first-time through ball, allowing him to finish cooly past Patricio. Moments later, Portugal’s dismal opening spell was compounded when Fabio Coentrao had to be replaced by Miguel Lopes after failing to shake off an injury.
The visitors rallied quickly and were almost level just three minutes later when Ignashavich sliced a clearance which almost went into his own net, before Igor Akinfeev denied both Ronaldo and Bruno Alves in quick succession.
Nani, who has frustrated Manchester United fans with his recent performances, was a constant menace down the right-hand side as Kombarov failed to get close to him, and only some excellent last-ditch defending stopped his wicked cross from reaching the head of Helder Postiga.
Ronaldo and Nani were persistently Portugal’s biggest threat in the first half and they almost combined to brilliant effect when the captain played a delightful backheel through the Russian backline, but Nani was adjudged to have fouled his man and the move came to nothing.
Russia came close with another Kerzhakov effort from close-range before a frustrated Ronaldo fired a free-kick straight at Akinfeev, as Portugal left the field for the interval with 65% of the possession but without a goal to show for it.
The visitors’ dominance continued after the break and only a brilliant tackle from Alexander Anyukov denied Ronaldo from finding the net at the near post after some terrific interplay between Nani and Joao Pereira. However, Akinfeev remained largely untroubled for the opening 20 minutes of the half as the Russian rearguard, marshalled by the towering Sergey Ignashevich, stopped practically everything Paulo Bento’s side could muster.
Ronaldo saw another effort fly over the crossbar as the Seleccao became increasingly frustrated in their bid to find an equaliser, and Russia began to look the more likely on the counter-attack, with Aleksandr Kokorin drawing a stinging save from Patricio after a strong run and shot.
Portugal threw on in-form Braga striker Eder as they continued their desperate attemtps to unlock the hosts` defence, but Ignashevich and Co. were not to be undone and Russia held on for a crucial victory as they look to reach their first World Cup finals since 2002.