Russia and Portugal know a thing or two about not making it to the big one; not qualifying for the World Cup.
Over the last 15 years, both have failed to secure a spot at the high table at least once. For two of Europe’s most dominant national sides, and two countries that like to think of themselves as footballing powerhouses, the disappointments have been particularly hard to bear.
Both missed out on a place at France ’98. Portugal, inspired by the Golden Generation, the likes of Rui Costa, Luis Figo and Joao Pinto, got off to a bad start and never recovered—pipped to the post by Germany and Ukraine.
Russia fared slightly better, managing to finish second in their group, only to draw Italy in the play-offs and miss out thanks to a Pierluigi Casiraghi winner in the Stadio San Paolo, Naples.
Worse was to come for Russia during the qualifying campaigns of the last decade.
In 2006, when drawn against current opposition Portugal, they failed to escape the group; they trailed both the Selecao and minnows Slovakia—on goal difference.
Four years later, drawn against neighbouring Slovenia, the side, then managed by Guus Hiddink, arrived at the nadir of a disappointing decade.
Confident of securing a place at the South Africa World Cup, the Russian Federation debuted a new, flashy national strip ahead of the crucial play-off—anticipating that all would be well and that comfortable passage would be secured.
It wasn’t to be.
The golden eagle, emblazoned upon rich red shirts with a regal gold trim, looked a lot less majestic as Zlatko Dedic’s winner sent Slovenia, and not Russia, to Africa’s first World Cup.
Having read my fair share of Russian literature, I know that they are a nation acutely aware of the perils of hubris…not so, it seemed, Hiddink and Co.
It was in this context that two of Europe’s great underachievers clashed in Benfica’s Estadio da Luz in Lisbon. The Russians, leading the group after four wins in four games, plus, remarkably, with two games in hand, knew that victory would all but guarantee their escape from the group. The home side, on the other hand, were under no illusion that anything other than a victory would curtail their World Cup dream at this embarrassingly early date.
Fortunately for the home supporters, they were ahead within the first ten minutes. Talisman and all-round Portuguese demi-deity Cristiano Ronaldo was bundled over, and Miguel Veloso cast the resulting freekick firmly into the Russian danger zone. Helder Postiga, the best of a bad bunch up top, made no mistake with the opportunity presented to him. He fired home past Igor Akinfeev.
The Iberians were able to hold on for the rest of the encounter, as a surprisingly lethargic Russian side struggled to find the rhythm and the pulse that has served them so well in qualifying thus far. Admittedly, the visitors were thrown off-kilter by two first half substitutions—Viktor Faizulin leaving the field after only 21 minutes for tactical reasons, with experienced right back Aleksandr Anyukov also departing only 10 minutes later. They rarely looked like they could upset the near-euphoric atmosphere.
Portugal, often giving the impression of being a one-man show at Euro 2012, were looking much more balanced this evening.
Wolfsburg man Vieirinha is a much more predictable option than Nani in a wide position, and his orthodox approach to the right wing position emerged as a great weapon to the Selecao.
Miguel Veloso delighted with his expert deliveries and searching long balls. Ronaldo and Fabio Coentrao demonstrated a relationship that has blossomed so on the training ground at Madrid, menacing down the left flank. Joao Moutinho was the prime contender for man of the match. He patrolled the midfield, demonstrating dynamism and drive, key to all that was good about the Portguese.
I couldn’t help but wonder how different his legacy will be now that he has exchanged a potential seat in the heart of one of Europe’s genuine giants for a moneyed throne at AS Monaco, a newly promoted plaything on the Riviera.
By the end of play, Portugal found themselves in top spot in Group F, two points ahead of the Russians. The road ahead is anything but clear however, and while this victory has kept Portugal in with a shot of advancing, their place at Brazil 2014 is still anything but sure.
Consider this, in Russia’s five remaining fixtures they are still to play Luxembourg twice.
Now while the Western Europeans have doubtlessly improved in recent times, earning two draws against Azerbaijan, a draw in Belfast against Northern Ireland and a hard-fought 2-1 defeat to Portugal back in September, you would have to back Capello’s men to seal the maximum six points available.
Doubtless, Portugal will be hoping that hubris strikes again, and that Russia can slip up against either Northern Ireland—in a game that has twice been postponed—or local rivals Azerbaijan.
Both teams are still to welcome Israel, and the Blues and Whites may just have their own say in the destiny of the group. Both Northern Ireland and Azerbaijan still have to travel to the Ramat Gan Stadium in the coastal Tel Aviv district. Currently standing a game and three points behind Portugal, Eli Guttman’s men will be harbouring firm hopes of spoiling the party and rendering tonight’s victory redundant.
They have demonstrated their quality in a 3-3 home draw with Portugal, as well as an away victory in Belfast, and unlike their more illustrious opposition, Israel don’t have the tag of chronic underachievers hanging over them.
Tonight’s contest most likely prolonged the inevitable, that is, one of Russia and Portugal once more enduring heartache of the cruelest kind. Spirits will be high in Lisbon tonight, but expect many more twists and turns as Group F runs its course.