MOSCOW. (RIA Novosti sports commentator Mikhail Smirnov.) The 2006 World Cup qualifiers revealed a paradox: Russia's top ally in the battle to qualify for a place among the soccer elite in Germany is Liechtenstein.
After the Russians had a typically labored match against Latvia to take back home just one point, minnows Liechtenstein did to Slovakia what they had already done to Portugal. They held the visitors to a 0-0 draw.
Russia and Liechtenstein will play next in Moscow on September 3. And there is every reason to hope that the Russians will get another present, because Liechtenstein have a much better record at home. For Russian supporters, it is something of a shame that Liechtenstein has to go to Portugal in October because otherwise there was a chance that the part-timers could play another dirty trick on the Euro-2004 runners up.
In fact, a look at the remaining matches in Group Three, which also includes Estonia and Luxemburg, shows that Portugal has all but an automatic berth to Germany. The Portuguese have 20 points, two points ahead of the Slovaks and five points ahead of the Russians, although the former two sides both have a game in hand. With Luxemburg, Liechtenstein and Latvia at home and just one away game in Moscow, it is difficult to see Portugal blowing the lead in the four remaining matches.
Russia, on the other hand, will meet Liechtenstein and Luxemburg at home before traveling to Bratislava to face Slovakia. The showdown on October 12 will most likely decide the runner up in the group. Under the rules, the winners of the eight qualifying groups and the two runners up with the best records will automatically go to Germany. The remaining six teams in second place will have to try their luck in play-offs.
So, Russia may finally take matters into their own hand. After all, you cannot count on Liechtenstein forever.