Portugal and Russia are set to square off in a crucial World Cup qualifier. The UEFA Group F rivals are embroiled in a very close three-nation race which also involves Israel. Only two will advance, one directly to Brazil and the other into the playoff round.
The Russians are in a more promising position heading into the clash. They lead the group with 12 points, one ahead of Portugal and Israel, and also have two matches in hand. A loss would take away a sizable chunk of that advantage, though.
Portugal has more work to do. As it stands now, the Seleccao wouldn't even reach the playoff round, which would be a massive disappointment. They must take advantage of these home matches down the stretch in order to avoid an early qualifying exit.
What's your prediction for the key World Cup qualifier?
These two countries were the ones expected to advance from Group F. While that could still be the case, nothing is guaranteed yet. Let's take a glance at all the important information for the match, followed by players to watch and a prediction.
Where: Estadio da Luz in Lisbon, Portugal
When: Friday, June 7 at 3:45 p.m. ET
Watch: ESPN Deportes
Live Stream: ESPN3.com
Portugal Player to Watch: Cristiano Ronaldo
Ronaldo missed the season finale with Real Madrid due to a knock. Luckily for Portugal, the injury was nothing of a serious nature and he's reached full fitness ahead of international duty, reports Tom Kundert of PortuGoal. A couple of his teammates are also cleared for action.
Good news for Portugal ahead of Friday's must-win clash against Russia. Ronaldo, Coentrão & Nani shake off knocks and 100% fit.— Tom Kundert (@Portu_Goal) June 4, 2013
It's impossible to overstate the importance of Ronaldo to Portugal. Not only is the 28-year-old winger the driving force behind the national team's attack, but he's also the captain. These are the type of big matches where he must lead the way.
Opponents understand his value to the Portuguese squad, which is why his track record at the international level (38 goals in 102 matches) isn't on the same level as with Real Madrid. There's a lot more pressure and attention on him. Now he must deliver.
Russia Player to Watch: Aleksandr Kerzhakov
Russia is averaging a modest two goals per game through four qualifying matches. Three of them have been scored by Kerzhakov, including the only goal in a 1-0 triumph over Portugal back at home in October.
The Zenit St. Petersburg striker is coming off a strong club campaign. He netted 11 goals in 28 appearances across Russian Premier League and Champions League play. It's the type of production the veteran has consistently provided throughout his career.
Like Ronaldo, he's a vital element to the national team's success. He's scored 22 international goals. Midfielder Roman Shirokov is the only other player on the current squad in double digits. So Kerzhakov will need to have a major impact for Russia to get a positive result.
Matchup to Watch: Portugal attack vs. Russia defense
Led by Ronaldo, the Portugal attack doesn't lack talent but hasn't produced at an elite level in qualifying. They have scored 11 goals in six matches, four fewer than second-placed Israel. The offensive pressure must increase over the final four matches.
Which group will give its team the edge?
It won't be easy against a tremendous Russian back line. They haven't allowed a single goal so far in group play. Four straight clean sheets, including one against the Seleccao. So it's going to take a sustained effort for Portugal to break down the Sergei Ignashevich-led defense.
Ultimately, expect to see a desperate and aggressive showing from Ronaldo, Helder Postiga and Co. A loss in this match and suddenly they are in serious danger of missing the World Cup. They should do enough to squeak out the victory and earn three crucial points.
Portugal 2, Russia 1