Pugnacious Portugal defy the form book
Even when things are going well, Fabio Capello prowls the touchline appearing to look at those around him with thinly-veiled contempt these days. The Russia coach had reason to be put out here. Nearly nine years on from the October night when Luiz Felipe Scolari's Portugal gave Georgi Yartsev's Russia a 7-1 hiding across town at the Estadio Jose Alvalade, the visiting side suffered more misery in Lisbon.
While Paulo Bento's team leapfrogged Russia at the top of World Cup qualifying Group F, it is too early to talk of power or even momentum shifts - Capello's side trail by two points but have two matches in hand. Yet perhaps the most galling aspect for the Italian was the self-inflicted nature of aspects of this defeat, against an opponent underpinned with tension. Even when Helder Postiga - continuing his curious habit of scoring international goals at the same ratio as Wayne Rooney - gave the hosts the lead inside the opening ten minutes, nobody expected the floodgates to open as they had at the home of Sporting back in 2004.
Igor Akinfeev's unusual reticence in coming for an admittedly magnificent Miguel Veloso free-kick, allowing Postiga to convert deep inside the six-yard box, epitomised Russian half-heartedness in a tepid first half-hour by them. Russia's stasis was a far cry from the authority they had shown in the recent London friendly with Brazil, and unbefitting of a side that hadn't conceded a goal in four qualifying games to here.
It was certainly in marked contrast to Portugal's rigour. The Seleccao das Quinas were showing exactly what Bento had requested pre-match - "a high level of aggression - within what's allowed, of course - defensively and offensively." For all his merits, Bento is no tactical genius, and the feeling was that this backs-against-the-wall situation suited him, just as it had when he took over in October 2010. There was no need for nuance – just back to basics, belt and braces determination. Just the sort of thing that Scolari used to beat his chest and exhort during his own spell at the helm, in fact.
Whether his players were ready to meet that demand had been in doubt. Bento's own description of Nani as "medically ready" in the build-up said it all. The Manchester United winger had not played in six weeks, and has not impressed for the national side for a lot longer. Bento is loathe to make changes, which left him in a tricky position with a number of his favourites out of nick. Only a handful of the starting line-up that the coach has all but carved in stone have really had good seasons; Joao Moutinho for Porto, Joao Pereira and Helder Postiga in La Liga and the overworked Rui Patricio at Sporting, outside the inevitable Cristiano Ronaldo, of course.
The two big changes were forced upon him, with Vierinha replacing the undercooked Nani and Luis Neto drafted in to deputise for the banned Pepe. Vierinha, a key part of Portugal's winning European Under-17 Championship campaign back in 2003 who had to wait nearly a decade for his full debut, had replaced Nani when suspended for the last qualifier in Azerbaijan, and had impressed.
The Wolfsburg winger again made a positive contribution here, stretching the play on that right hand side and giving Dimitry Kombarov an uncomfortable evening. After skinning the Spartak Moscow left-back just before the half-hour, his cutback should have led to a Ronaldo goal, but the captain hammered wastefully over. When Vierinha swapped dynamism for retaining possession and relieving the pressure on Portugal in the latter stages, he did an equally useful service. He deserved the generous hand he received when replaced by Custodio in the closing moments.
On the other hand the inclusion of Neto next to Bruno Alves had hardly been a sight to inspire confidence, and might even have provoked a round of lip-licking in the Russian dressing room, given that the pair appear to have been in a competition to win the mantle of being Zenit St Petersburg's most accident-prone defender in recent months.
Here, form went out of the window. A brutal tackle on his clubmate, Alexander Kerzhakov, in the first 20 minutes showed he was not prepared to be the butt of any jokes here. Neto was immaculate, which was just as well as new Fenerbahce signing Alves clung on to Kerzhakov by his metaphorical fingernails. Though he stuck to his task as doggedly as ever, Alves was given the slip by Kerzhakov on the hour, only for the Zenit man to fire straight at Patricio.
Meanwhile, Veloso was running the show in midfield. Despite having come through the Sporting academy, Veloso often flourishes at the home of the club where his father, Antonio, was a legend. A stellar first 45 minutes recalled memories of the night Veloso Jr. had in the second leg of the Euro 2012 play-off with Bosnia-Herzegovina on the same turf, when he capped a fine display with a sumptuous free-kick goal. When the players had a water break midway through the first half, Bento was quick to beckon the Dynamo Kiev man over to his technical area to talk. At his best, Veloso is almost as important as Joao Moutinho in mapping out Portugal's game plan.
Monaco's star signing is, at least, a constant that Bento can hang his hat on. His passing was as incisive as ever, as one delicious through ball to supply Ronaldo showed, with Akinfeev saving well. He led with the spirit his coach demanded too, hacking clear in his own penalty box with seconds left to bookend a night of high craft and a few heinous high tackles, which escaped referee Skomina's notice.
Capello had few so reliable here. He had seen enough by the time the first quarter of the game had elapsed, and he replaced Victor Fayzulin - lost in a nebulous space behind Alexander Kerzhakov - with Denis Glushakov after just 22 minutes. By then, the initiative and the chance to heap psychological pressure onto the hosts had gone.
Still, Russia could have taken something back to Moscow. Yuri Zhirkov fired a late effort into Patricio's arms when in acres of space. It epitomised Russia on the night - a tad short of conviction. They may yet regret softening their grip on Portugal's throat.