KEIR RADNEDGE in MOSCOW —- Hosts Russia must beat Mexico in Kazan on Saturday to reach the semi-finals of the Confederations Cup and avoid an awkward anti-climax for the 2018 World Cup warm-up tournament.
The Russians were fortunate to lose only 1-0 to European champions Portugal at Moscow Spartak and were pushed down from first to third place in Group A after Mexico won the late match 2-1 against New Zealand in Sochi.
Portugal captain Cristiano Ronaldo was again named man of the match after scoring the eighth–minute goal which sank Russia while Mexico owed victory over the All Whites to second-half strikes from Raul Jimenez and Oribe Peralta. New Zealand had snatched a surprise lead just before the interval through Chris Wood.
Mexico top Group A ahead of Portugal courtesy of goal difference with both on four points. Russia have three points and New Zealand, who conclude their campaign on Saturday against Portugal, have none. Hence Russia’s Kazan pursuit of victory against the Mexicans who need only a draw to ensure progress.
In Moscow Ronaldo & Co were a class better than their hosts for much of the match but their failure to convert commanding first-half possession into more goals left them struggling to contain a late Russian surge.
Unfortunately coach Stanislav Cherchesov’s men lacked the precision in and around the penalty box to seize the late moment.
Cherchesov said afterwards: “It wasn’t us, at the start, to let Ronaldo see so much of the ball. We knew who needed to go where but sometimes games don’t go according to plan. In the second half we changed things around and had several good chances but which, unfortunately, did not bring us any goals.”
Portugal manager Fernando Santos was content with the opening halfhour, which his team dominated. However his plans to maintain control with substitutes’ fresh legs in the second half were disrupted through a suspected leg fracture suffered by leftback Raphael Guerrero.
By then Portugal should have been out of sight. A long left-wing cross after only eight minutes from Guerrero had exposed sloppy Russian defending and allowed Ronaldo to rise above Fedor Kudriashov and head Portugal in front.
The Real Madrid superstar kept keeper Igor Akinfeyev under constant pressure. Akinfeyev, making his 100th appearance for Russia, had to dive low to his right to save a Ronaldo free kick then foil Portugal’s captain a second time with his legs.
Portugal maintained the pressure early in the second half. Akineyev saved an Andre Silva header at point-blank range then leaped to his right to keep out a low, long-range drive from rightback Cedric. Two other half-chances escaped Ronaldo before Russia finally raised their game in the closing stages but all to no avail.
New Zealand surprise
In Sochi New Zealand, beaten by Russia in last Saturday’s Opening Match, surprised a complacent Mexico by grabbing the lead through Leeds striker Wood three minutes before half-time.
El Tri looked a different team after the break. Stung by both the goal and the anger of coach Juan Carlos Osorio, they tore at the Oeania champions with newly-introduced Porto playmaker Hector Herrera inspirational.
The All Whites allowed Raul Jimenez to turn through 180 degrees to shoot a powerful equaliser in the 54th minute. It was his third goal in four games. Then Oribe Peralta, Mexico’s Olympic gold medal-winning hero in London in 2012, struck what proved the winner in the 71st.
A rare New Zealand raid saw Ryan Thomas denied by the angle of post and bar in the 84th minute while Jimenez, at the other end, had a shot cleared off the goal-line.
Tempers boiled over into a mass scuffle as New Zealand chased an equaliser in the closing minutes but Mexico duly survived eight minutes of stoppage time to claim all three points and grab the Group A leadership on goal difference.
Thus Russia must chase victory over Mexico in Kazan. They could progress to the semi-finals with a draw if Portugal lose heavily to New Zealand in St Petersburg. But no-one will harbour any illusions about such an outcome.
** For teams level on points, positions are decided in order by:
1, Goal difference in all group matches;
2, Goals scored in all group matches.
If two or more teams are still level, rankings will be determined by:
1, Greatest number of points in mutual matches;
2, Goal difference in mutual matches;
3, Goals scored in mutual matches.
4, Fair play points based on
– yellow card: minus 1 point
– yellow/red card: minus 3 points
– direct red card: minus 4 points
– yellow card and direct red card: minus 5 points
5, drawing of lots by the FIFA organising committee.