Roman Shirokov's 16th-minute strike propelled Russia into the 2014 World Cup. (Alexander Mysyakin/AP)
Russia has qualified for its first World Cup since 2002 with a 1-1 draw against Azerbaijan in Baku.
Roman Shirokov scored Russia's only goal 16 minutes into the contest, while Azerbaijan's Vagif Dzavadov made things a bit more tense in the closing stages with a 90th minute header to level the scores. Had Azerbaijan somehow netted a winner, Russia would have been condemned to the UEFA playoffs while Portugal, who routed Luxembourg 3-0, would have topped the group.
As it is, though, Russia has booked its ticket to Brazil, and Portugal must wait to find out who it must defeat in a home-and-home playoff in order to qualify for its fourth consecutive World Cup.
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The Russians found themselves in a tougher-than-expected clash against an Azerbaijan side that was clearly looking for any kind of positive result to cap a qualifying campaign in which it was able to hang with the other teams in the group's bottom four (Israel, Northern Ireland, and Luxembourg) but never with the Russians or the Portuguese.
The trend appeared likely to continue with Shirokov's early goal. The strike owed much to some fantastic play by Aleksandr Semadov, whose lovely diagonal pass from the touchline found Shirokov's pacey run right through the heart of the Azeri defense. The finish was as tidy as possible, and Russia seemed to be on its way to a rout.
Azerbaijan made sure that didn't happen, though. The home side continually stifled Russias' attacks with competent, no-nonsense defending, some instances of which led to counterattacks and chances for goals at the other end. Even after midfielder Maksim Medvedev was shown a straight red card for a rash challenge, Azerbaijan continued to push numbers forward on set pieces. That was where it would eventually find the equalizer.
After Rauf Aliyev won a free kick in Russia's half, Mahir Shukurov stepped up and put in a well-placed aerial ball, which Davadov deftly headed into the bottom corner. Just like that, Russia was on the ropes with three minutes of stoppage time to go.
Clearly, though, Azerbaijan didn't intend to do Portugal any favors whatsoever. Instead of grabbing the ball out of the back of the net and running back toward the center circle, the home side celebrated as if the tying goal were the winner. Once the game kicked off again, the Azeris allowed the Russians to pass the ball back and forth amongst themselves in their own half, bringing to mind a certain scene from The Simpsons. When the final whistle blew, Russia celebrated its passage to the world's biggest stage while Azerbaijan was clearly happy enough to have finally taken points off of one of its group's top teams.
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Luxembourg did no such celebrating in the group's other game. The tiny nation was able to match up to Portugal for the game's first stanza, but a reckless challenge from forward Aurelien Joachim drew a straight red in the 28th minute. Just like that an already difficult task was made almost impossible.
Silvestre Varela scored Portugal's first goal just two minutes after the ejection, and Nani doubled the advantage with a superb strike from outside the box six minutes later.
Hélder Postiga scored the clincher in the 78th minute, securing the win for Portugal in a match made more or less pointless thanks to Russia's draw. Portugal now awaits its opponent in the playoffs -- the same way it qualified for the 2010 World Cup, when it defeated Bosnia and Herzegovina twice.
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