Confederations Cup hosts Russia face a stern test against European champions Portugal at a sold-out Spartak Stadium in Moscow on Wednesday.
Captained by current world player of the year Cristiano Ronaldo, Portugal will be looking to record a first-ever win on Russian soil, having registered three defeats and one draw in four previous visits.
Portugal do however lead head-to-head matches, with six wins to Russia’s three and one draw in 11 matches between the two, although Russia won their last meeting in Krasnodar in November 2015 courtesy of a late Roman Shirokov winner.
The match on Wednesday will be the tournament’s first sell-out, with a full capacity crowd expected at the 45,000-seater Spartak Stadium.
Russia striker Fedor Smolov said at a press conference on Tuesday that the support offered from the majority home crowd will give ‘Sbornaya’ the “strength to achieve victory” on matchday.
Russia will be looking to build on their Confed Cup opening game victory on Saturday, when Stanislav Cherchesov’s men overcame New Zealand at St. Petersburg Stadium in what turned out to be a comfortable 2-0 victory.
For Portugal, victory against Russia would be also be a first win in this summer’s tournament for the Iberian nation after a dramatic 2-2 draw versus Mexico in Kazan in their opening Group A match.
Those results mean Russia can all but clinch a semifinal spot in their home tournament with victory on Wednesday, while Portugal will be facing a potential early flight home should they fail to beat the hosts.
Russia made their attacking intent known against the ‘All Whites’, with manager Stanislav Cherchesov opting for two attackers in Dmitry Poloz and Fedor Smolov.
That move paid off, with the two frontmen forming a partnership that caused numerous problems for the Kiwi backline with impressive link-up play.
However, Cherchesov may adopt a slightly more defensive approach against Portugal, reverting to a 5-4-1 formation, with Smolov starting in attack alone and Poloz likely making way for an extra midfielder to combat Portugal’s counter-attacking threat.
Facing Cristiano Ronaldo will undoubtedly be a huge task for the relatively inexperienced Russia backline, which features center-back pairing Viktor Vasin and Fedor Kudryashov, who both have made fewer than 10 international appearances.
They do have the reassurance of having captain and stalwart Igor Akinfeev as their last line of defense. The goalkeeper will make his 100th appearance in Russian colors on Wednesday.
Although Portugal represents a step up from New Zealand, ‘Sbornaya’ will go into the game in confident mood, with Portugal’s opening game draw meaning the onus is on Fernando Santos’ men to get a result in Moscow.
Santos has said he is keen to rotate the squad during the tournament, which could mean a start for exciting young attacker Andre Silva, 21, who recently agreed a big-money move to AC Milan from Porto.
Silva already has bagged seven goals in nine games for ‘Selecao’, and made a lively cameo appearance towards the end of the game against Mexico.
Russia must be careful not to focus solely on negating the threat from Ronaldo as several Mexico defenders found to their cost on Sunday. Having been drawn to the Portugal captain, they left winger Ricardo Quaresma unmarked to score the first goal at Kazan Arena.
Ronaldo showed glimpses of brilliance in that game, which was also his Confederations Cup debut. Talk is now centered on him leading Portugal to glory in Russia unaffected by ongoing tax fraud speculation in Spain or his future at Real Madrid.
That’s just as well for Portugal, as they are likely to face a packed-out Spartak Stadium and vociferous home support in the Russian capital in a game to be relished for both sets of fans and neutral supporters.