Don Fabio frustrates toothless Portugal
Victory over Portugal will taste sweet for Russia, and all the more so given the national consternation since the champions of the latter emptied their figurative piggy bank to snare two of the titans of the former's league. Brazil's Hulk and Axel Witsel of Belgium were, of course, nowhere to be seen at Moscow's Luzhniki Stadium on Friday night, but the shadow of their recent arrival loomed large over this World Cup qualifier.
The generous salary granted to Hulk to persuade him to join Zenit St Petersburg has provoked less headlines in Russia than the apoplectic reaction of some of the club's existing players, notably the experienced midfielder Igor Denisov. Everybody from president Vladimir Putin down seems to have given their two roubles on Denisov's outburst in an interview with Sovetsky Sport, with his now-infamous claim that Zenit's new forward didn't deserve his annual €6.5 million wage as he "is not [Andres] Iniesta or [Lionel] Messi".
This discontent might not have been of particular concern to Russia coach Fabio Capello had a furious Zenit not banished Denisov - and star striker Sasha Kerzhakov, who stood up for him - to train with the reserves as punishment for his insolence. Kerzhakov has since returned to the senior fold, but Denisov has not played a minute in the Zenit first team since they were hammered at Malaga in the Champions League, almost a month ago.
Not only did Capello include was the spiky Denisov, but the midfielder wore the captain's armband and lasted the whole match. Yet something has discernibly changed. Perhaps this kerfuffle, and the arrival of Russia's new coach, could spell the beginning of the end of the national team's perceived culture of mammon. We are only three competitive matches into Capello's reign and already the caprices of the Euro 2012 squad appear a mere memory. The summer's group was scolded by the general public, largely thought of as spoilt brats living it up in a grand, central Warsaw hotel and lazily letting the prospect of a quarter-final place slip through their fingers. This, on the other hand, was a Russia side shot through with rigour.
It wasn't quite Capello's England beating Spain at Wembley in November 2011, but it wasn't that far from it. In the first hour of the match Portugal had 69% of the ball, but home goalkeeper Igor Akinfeev rarely had any opportunity to warm himself up in the cool Moscow autumn. "It was difficult to create chances," Braga's Eder lamented to RTP after the match. "They're tactically very good - they have an Italian coach." A cliché, perhaps, but you could see where he was coming from.
Russia went through the entire 90 minutes "without any sort of quality in possession", as Portugal's premier football website Mais Futebol put it, but they were effective nonetheless. Vasily Berezutskiy was typically solid and the mercurial Alan Dzagoev was left on the bench as pragmatism came first.
It was all too much for Portugal, who were probably marginal favourites before kick-off given the respective teams' form in Poland and Ukraine. Paulo Bento's XI has been constant over the past year, with the replacement of Raul Meireles with the in-form Ruben Micael of Braga the only switch from his perpetual alignment. Unfortunately for Micael he was at the source of the one momentary lapse that ultimately cost Portugal the match, losing the ball to Viktor Fayzulin before Roman Zhirokov set free Kerzhakov. Micael was not alone in the dog house, with the Zenit striker played onside by his clubmate Bruno Alves before applying a finish more reminiscent of his imperious club form than his summer profligacy.
What was wholly more worrying from an Iberian perspective was that they rarely penetrated Capello's organised hosts in the remaining 84 minutes that followed Kerzhakov's goal. Bento's side have had their difficulties in front of goal in the past, but this was something different to the norm. Whereas fans on the seleccao das quinas pulled their hair out as their team frittered inviting opportunities in June's Lisbon friendly with Turkey and the Euro 2012 match with Denmark alike, there was little to invite such anguish here.
Control didn't equal creation. Portugal certainly weren't helped by the early loss of left-back Fabio Coentrao, with the substitute (and right-back) Miguel Lopes struggling on his wrong side and unable to link with Cristiano Ronaldo in the meaningful sense as the captain does with his Real Madrid colleague and friend.
Lopes insisted laudably insisted that the Luzhniki's artificial pitch was "no excuse" after the game, and it was clear that Portugal growing tired and running out of ideas as the match wore on was more a product of their own frustration and Russia's stoicism.
Bento might have puffed his chest out in the post-match flash interview and pointed out that Russia still have to pay his side a visit in the return fixture, but the measure of passive control exercised by Capello's side suggests a repeat of the 7-1 humbling they took on their last visit to Lisbon (in a World Cup qualifier in October 2004) is highly unlikely.
Portugal's coach has some serious questions to ask himself. The right support for Ronaldo is again a quandary, with Eder and Deportivo La Coruna's on-loan Nelson Oliveira banging on the door to replace Helder Postiga. Even more concerning was Nani, who received plenty of possession but producied little. If Zenit coach Luciano Spalletti was watching, he might have breathed a sigh of relief that a push for the Manchester United winger was one big pre-deadline transfer that didn't come off.
What is certainly clear is that Portugal now have little margin for error on the qualification trail. Arguably they've worked best for Bento under that sort of pressure, as evidenced in the campaign to reach Euro 2012. They'll have to prove that theory all over again, beginning with Northern Ireland's visit to Porto on Tuesday night.