Northern Ireland's FIFA World Cup™ qualifying campaign got off to a losing
start as goals from Viktor Fayzulin and Roman Shirokov gave Fabio Capello's
Russia three points in Moscow.
The visitors set-up to steal a point and for half-an-hour looked as though
they might, only for Fayzulin to break the deadlock with a smart finish
from eight yards. Russia's second came from a hotly-disputed penalty,
Shirokov coolly converting from the spot.
Northern Ireland boss Michael O'Neill made a couple of big calls in his
team selection, handing 34-year-old goalkeeper Roy Carroll a first competitive
start for six years - and confirming the demotion of previous No1 Lee
Camp in the process. He also opted to leave Dean Shiels on the bench in
favour of Jamie Ward despite man-of-the-match performances in his last
Northern Ireland started, as expected, by packing the midfield area and
leaving Kyle Lafferty to forage for long balls in attack. Chris Brunt
was the notional support man, but the Sion striker looked content with
his solo task and dispossessed Vasily Berezutsky in the final third after
only four minutes. He was unable to pick out Ward with the cross, but
it raised the spirits of a travelling contingent numbering around 200.
Alexander Kerzhakov, whose pre-match assessment of Northern Ireland caused
a minor stir, had the first shot of the match soon after, but he could
not test Carroll from the edge of the area. Russia came again and a neat
first touch from Alan Dzagoev gave Kerzhakov a second chance but this
time he made a poor connection.
The ball continued to follow the Zenit St Petersburg forward and in the
18th minute he had his best chance yet. Vladimir Bystrov touched the ball
on to leave him eight yards from goal with the defence wrong-footed. But
instead of striking early he took an extra touch and still managed to
screw the shot wide.
The home side were having the lion's share of the ball but, they were
let down too often by poor final passes. McAuley, meanwhile, was putting
in a tireless shift of clearances and interceptions.
Russia's Aleksandr Kokorin (L) vies with Crage Cathcart
(R) of Northern Ireland. AFP PHOTO
Yet after half an hour Russia broke the deadlock. Bystrov unlocked the
defence with a carefully-weighted pass, Kerzhakov centred the ball from
the edge of the penalty box and the onrushing Fayzulin sent a first-time
effort into the top corner. Shirokov almost put Russia two in front four
minutes later only for Carroll to save well with his feet at the near
By now Russia were controlling possession with calmer heads, the goal
having settled them. Northern Ireland had further cause for concern on
the stroke of half-time when Jonny Evans appeared to injure himself volleying
a dead ball into the stands. The Manchester United defender emerged after
half-time, ruling out any serious injury concern, but did not appear to
move with complete comfort.
The second half began in flat fashion, briefly brought to life when Berezutsky
headed Dmitry Kombarov's 54th-minute corner just wide of the far post.
Northern Ireland were struggling for a foothold in the game, with Lafferty
increasingly isolated and visibly frustrated.
Bystrov almost enticed a penalty out of Cathcart when he surged into the
box from the right flank, but instead opted to stay on his feet and look
for Kerzhakov. Evans was alert to the danger and beat his man to the ball.
With an hour gone neither side appeared desperate to shift the momentum
of the game, with Northern Ireland seemingly content to leave their pursuit
of an equaliser to the last minute.
For their part, Russia were struggling to create any meaningful attacks.
Bystrov injected some life into proceedings with a jinking run towards
goal, ended when Corry Evans tripped him a yard outside the area. That
gave Kerzhakov the chance to try his luck from an inviting position and
he was close to doubling the lead, crashing his shot against the post.
With just under quarter of an hour left Russia were awarded a soft penalty,
Alexander Kokorin going down under minimal contact from Cathcart. Northern
Ireland were furious, not least when Cathcart was booked, but that did
not stop Shirokov rolling home the spot-kick.
Northern Ireland were rightly denied a penalty of their own in the closing
moments when McAuley called for handball, more in hope than expectation.
Andy Little and, belatedly, Shiels were summoned from the bench but the
Rangers pair had no real chance to affect the game.
September 7, 2012
World Cup qualifying Group F
Stadion Lokomotiv, Moskva
Referee: Mateu Lahoz (ESP).
Russia: Igor Akinfeev, Alexander Anyukov, Sergey Ignashevich, Vasiliy
Berezutskiy, Igor Denisov (c), Roman Shirokov, Alan Dzagoev (Aleksandr
Kokorin, 58), Vladimir Bystrov, Viktor Faizulin (Denis Glushakov, 85),
Dmitriy Kombarov, Aleksandr Kerzhakov.
Coach: Fabio Capello.
No. Ireland: Roy Carroll, Gareth McAuley, Chris Baird, Aaron Hughes, Craig
Cathcart, Jonny Evans, Steven Davis (c), Chris Brunt, Corry Evans (Dean
Shiels, 85), Jamie Ward (Andrew Little, 76), Kyle Lafferty.
Coach: Michael O'Neill.
Goals scored: Viktor Faizulin (30), Roman Shirokov (78, PG).
Yellow cards: Chris Baird (43), Alexander Anyukov (64), Craig Cathcart
(77), Chris Baird (85).