Group F favourites Russia and Portugal meet at the Luzhniki stadium in Moscow on Friday (4pm BST) with the leadership of the group up for grabs.
Both began their World Cup qualifying campaigns with two wins from two in the opening round of matches in September. In an otherwise fairly weak group, it is likely the two matches between these sides will determine which qualifies automatically for Brazil 2014.
Russia were very impressive in their first competitive matches under Italian coach Fabio Capello, scoring six and conceding none in defeating Northern Ireland at home and Israel away.
Capello omitted experienced figures Andrei Arshavin, Roman Pavlyuchenko and Pavel Pogrebnyak from his squad for those fixtures and has done so again for the home double header against Portugal and Azerbaijan (whom Russia play on Tuesday).
Otherwise, there are few surprises in Capello’s call-up, excepting perhaps the inclusion of Zenit Saint-Petersburg midfielder Igor Denisov. He has not played at club level since mid-September due to his protest over the inequality in salary between himself and new signings Alex Witsel and Hulk.
Denisov started both of last month’s qualifiers and his tough-tackling approach has been dearly missed by Zenit in his absence. Capello may feel Denisov is still the best choice to form the defensive component of his midfield despite the 28-year-old’s lack of playing time.
The stable, secure back five of goalkeeper Igor Akinfeev, full-backs Alexander Anyukov and Dmitri Kombarov, and the CSKA Moscow central defensive pairing of Vassili Berezutski and Sergei Ignashevich look likely to remain in situ. They offer a strong defensive platform that makes Russia difficult to break down.
Such solidity has often been the hallmark of Capello sides, but Russia also have some exciting attacking talent. Striker Alexander Kerzhakov is expected to be flanked by the likes of Alan Dzagoev, Aleksandr Kokorin, Vladimir Bystrov or Viktor Faizulin.
The Portugal defence that will try to stop Russia finding the back of the net on Friday are well-versed in each other’s strengths and weaknesses, having played together in each of Portugal’s last nine competitive matches. Goalkeeper Rui Patricio, with Joao Pereira, Bruno Alves, Pepe and Fabio Coentrao in front of him, has conceded seven times in those matches. That is less than a goal per match, but still not exactly watertight. Russia can be fairly confident that the movement of Kerzhakov will trouble the somewhat leaden-footed Bruno Alves and Pepe in the centre of the Portuguese defence.
Consistency has been at the heart of Paulo Bento’s strategy since taking over as national team coach. It is not only the defence that has gone unchanged – in those last nine competitive matches Bento has sent out the same starting eleven on eight occasions.
This strategy has produced good results with qualification for Euro 2012 and a run to the semi-finals. It will likely take injuries or truly special performances to persuade Bento to deviate from his preferred line-up.
The player most at risk on form alone is Nani. He performed poorly in both of Portugal’s qualifiers last month, especially against Luxembourg. He was replaced by Silvestre Varela at half-time in that fixture. With Varela in good form for Porto in recent weeks there is a chance the Manchester United winger could be dislodged from the starting eleven.
On the injury front, the build-up on Friday’s match has been dominated by the fitness of Cristiano Ronaldo, Portugal’s star player and scorer of four goals in his last five competitive internationals. Ronaldo suffered a shoulder injury after falling awkwardly in Real Madrid’s 2-2 draw with Barcelona at the weekend and there had been doubts over his participation against Russia. However, on Tuesday Portugal’s doctor Henrique Jones indicated he was confident Ronaldo would be fit to start.
Pepe and Pereira also appear to have shrugged off knocks picked up at the weekend and therefore Portugal are likely to be at full strength.
Russia v Portugal Betting Tips Verdict
Portugal have often been content to contain teams considered to be their superiors. That was most notably in their 0-0 draw and eventual penalty shootout defeat to Spain in this summer’s European Championship semi-final.
They will look to stifle the Russian attack and then threaten on the counter-attack through the pace and power of Ronaldo and clever movement of Helder Postiga.
Russia certainly have enough attacking talent to trouble the Portuguese defence and will probably create some chances, but this is generally likely to be a tightly-fought match with few goals to show for either team’s effort.