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Russia blame German referee for Portugal stalemate

MOSCOW, Sept 8 (Reuters) - Russia blamed German referee Markus Merk for a harsh dismissal of Alexei Smertin in the first half of their World Cup qualifier against Portugal, probably costing the home team the much-needed three points.

Merk had difficulty keeping the players' tempers in check in a tense Group Three encounter on Wednesday, controversially sending off Smertin in the 43rd minute after the Russia captain picked up his second yellow card for dangerous play.

Smertin said it was a wrong call.

'I did not deserve the red card,' the Charlton Athletic midfielder told reporters after the game.

'The first yellow (card) was deserved because I kicked the opponent while trying to play the ball, but the second one was totally uncalled for. The ref made a very subjective decision.'

Smertin said it was Portugal striker Cristiano Ronaldo's play-acting that had fooled Merk into making a wrong call.

'I think he fell down even before we've made contact,' the Russian said in reference to the Manchester United player.

'We had some words with each other but then we calmed down. Well, we both play in the same (English) league and we'll see each other soon. Then, we can talk about it more peacefully.'

The match ended in a 0-0 draw, moving Portugal a step closer to the World Cup while putting Russia's hopes of reaching next year's finals in jeopardy.

Portugal, on 24 points from 10 games, just need a point from their two remaining matches, at home to Liechtenstein and Latvia, to book their ticket to Germany.

Russia, meanwhile, must win both of their games, at home to Luxembourg and away to Slovakia, to finish as group runners-up.

Russia coach Yuri Syomin blamed Merk for letting the game get out of hand.

'I've warned our players the Portuguese would try provocative moves and Merk played to their tune,' Syomin said. 'He had no right to dismiss Smertin who made a clean tackle.'