BAKU, October 16 (R-Sport) – Russia qualified for their first World Cup in 12 years on Tuesday as a 1-1 draw away to Azerbaijan secured top spot in Group F.
Despite conceding a late equalizer, Fabio Capello’s Russians edged Portugal by one point in the final group standings. That forces the Portuguese, who beat Luxembourg 3-0 on Tuesday, into the playoffs, where they run the risk of missing a first major tournament since the 1998 World Cup in France.
Qualification ensures Russia will make an appearance at the World Cup before hosting the event in 2018, and also vindicates Capello’s strategy of dropping several key members of the Russian side that reached the Euro 2008 semifinals, including Andrei Arshavin and Roman Pavlyuchenko.
"I'm very happy with this qualifying cycle," Capello said. "In the face of such a serious opponent as Portugal, we've taken first place in the group ... Congratulations to everyone."
Capello was less than happy with Russia's defending in Tuesday's draw. "It's the third time we've let in a goal in the last minute," he said. "We need to look to the future and improve our game."
Russian officials have repeatedly said they want Capello to stay until 2018, but the Italian has yet to commit.
Russia’s qualifying campaign started with four straight wins, but stumbled with defeats away to Portugal and Northern Ireland in the summer, but last week’s win over Luxembourg and Tuesday’s victory over Azerbaijan were enough for a place at Brazil 2014.
Russia took the lead in Baku on 15 minutes when Roman Shirokov fired the ball into the net off a superb through-ball from Alexander Samedov, Russia’s half-Azerbaijani midfielder.
Azerbaijan were reduced to 10 men on 75 minutes after Maxim Medvedev earned a straight red card for a reckless two-footed lunge on Alexander Kerzhakov, and Russia tried to close out the game, but without success.
On 90 minutes, Azerbaijan won a free-kick and Mahir Shukurov pumped the ball into the box, where the unmarked Vagif Djavadov headed in the equalizer – four years and one day after scoring against Russia in another 1-1 draw in qualifying for the last World Cup.
"I want to congratulate my team. Playing a man down, we managed to score," Azerbaijan manager Berti Vogts said. "In the end, with effort and struggling, we got one point."
Russia should earlier have scored a second when Azerbaijani defender Elnur Allakhverdiyev gave the ball away to Alexander Kerzhakov on the hour mark, but the striker fired the ball straight at goalkeeper Kamran Agayev.
Soon after, Shirokov ended a promising counterattack by stroking the ball wide of the post, and Agayev displayed quick reactions to stop a late header from substitute Pavel Mamaev. At the other end, Vogts’ Azerbaijan produced little but speculative efforts from range for most of the game.
Samedov, who turned down Azerbaijan to play for Russia, earned a yellow card for a blatant dive in the box early on and spent much of the match being provoked by opponents keen to see him booked a second time. Late in the game, he was pelted with objects by fans until Azerbaijani fans appealed with them to stop.
Azerbaijan ended the match with 10 men after Maxim Medvedev earned a straight red card for a reckless two-footed lunge on Kerzhakov.
Russia’s 1-1 draw failed to meet the pre-match target of Capello, who had expressly ruled out settling for a single point.
The game in the Azerbaijani capital passed off without any clashes between rival fans, something which had been feared following race riots in Moscow in recent days. The disturbances had been sparked when an ethnic Russian man was stabbed to death, allegedly by an Azerbaijani.
Group F finishes with Israel third and Azerbaijan fourth, ahead of Northern Ireland and Luxembourg. In the other game in Group F, Israel and Northern Ireland drew 1-1.