Russia has a chance to take a firm grip on Group F when it faces Northern Ireland on Wednesday. A win would put the team a point ahead of Portugal with a game in hand atop the standings, while a draw would keep the Russians in comfortable striking distance.
For Northern Ireland, the game is a chance to finally get a win in Group F, and in front of their home fans, nonetheless. The Russians present a stiff test, of course, but expect a rowdy crowd backing the home side at Windsor Park.
Russia won the last meeting between these teams, 2-0. Let's break down this crucial World Cup qualifier.
When: Wednesday, August 14 at 2:45 p.m. ET
Where: Windsor Park, Belfast, Northern Ireland
What They're Saying
Russia may be in the driver's seat in Group F and playing a Northern Ireland team that has managed just three draws in five matches, but don't expect the team's manager, Fabio Capello, to undersell the challenge that lies in front of the Russians.
From the Russian FA's website (via Ria Novosti):
A moment of great responsibility has arrived. I think that everyone understands the significance of the match ahead of us, of the result and how very much depends on it in the standings.
Northern Ireland Player to Watch: Kyle Lafferty
The Northern Irish forward is coming off a nice performance for his club, Palermo, having scored against Cremonese on Sunday night, and his manager, Michael O'Neill, is hoping that will translate into another solid showing for his country.
From Sky Sports:
Kyle's been great for me.
He was suspended against Israel but his performances in the other games have been very good. It's another big game on Wednesday night and if selected, I expect another good performance.
Northern Ireland has scored just three goals (versus seven against) in their five World Cup qualifying games, so a strong showing from Lafferty or an early goal would go a long way for the underdogs in this contest.
The former Rangers and FC Sion man may not be the best player on this Northern Ireland squad, but he may be the most important against a talented Russian team.
Russia Player to Watch: Alan Dzagoev
Though it remains to be seen if he'll get the start, all eyes will ultimately be on Alan Dzagoev, Russia's most exciting young player.
A playmaking dynamo, the quick Dzagoev boasts technical prowess and the ability to headline any team's attack. He works hard atop the midfield and, while he is still developing a scoring touch, gives the Russians a creative flair in their counter-attacking style.
The CKSA Moscow man isn't afraid to let one rip from distance, either, so don't be surprised if he gets on the board against Northern Ireland.
Which team wins?
Russia have yet to lose in qualifying, and that trend won't end against Northern Ireland. The Russians are deeper, more talented and have far more at stake to lose this contest, even on the road.
The Russians earn a tight win, 1-0.