Moscow: Fabio Capello’s Russia on Tuesday face Azerbaijan in a 2014 World Cup qualifier knowing that a draw will be enough to take them into the finals for the first time since 2002.
The 2018 World Cup hosts, who missed the 2006 and 2010 editions, need to chalk up just one point in Tuesday’s Group F deciding qualifier to make it into the next summer’s finals in Brazil.
Russia top their table with 21 points from nine matches, three ahead of Portugal. All the other group teams have lost the chance to qualify and will play the last match mainly for pride.
However, Capello has warned his men that the slightest underestimation of their opponents could cost them an automatic pass to the finals.
Russia on Friday thrashed Luxembourg 4-0 but Azerbaijan, coached by German Berti Vogts and playing in front of fervent support at home in Baku, will be a different prospect.
“After the match with Luxembourg, Capello reminded us that we still hadn’t clinched a place in the finals,” midfielder Dmitry Kombarov said.
“He said that we need to keep ourselves focused just a little bit more. And we’re ready to fight for the win in Baku.”
Vogts won the World Cup as a player in 1974 and the European championship as manager of Germany in 1996.
And, according to local press reports, Azerbaijan’s football federation have promised record $127,000 bonuses for every team player if they beat Russia.
Russia will be without left winger Yury Zhirkov, who suffered a hip injury on Friday.
But Zenit St Petersburg midfielder Roman Shirokov, who captained Russia against Luxembourg, said all of his teammates understood the importance of the upcoming match.
“Azerbaijan are unbeaten at home in this campaign. They’re skilled opponents and are seriously motivated,” he said.
“But we are set to get a win there. We will play not for the bonuses but for our country.”
Capello, who took over the Russia squad in July 2012, has managed to record an impressive four-match winning streak in the 2014 World Cup campaign, beating 2-0 Northern Ireland, 4-0 Israel, 1-0 Portugal and 1-0 Azerbaijan for a perfect record from the start.
This impressive run was followed by two 1-0 defeats at the hands of Portugal and Northern Ireland, but three consecutive wins over Luxembourg 4-1 and 4-0 and Israel 3-1 left Russia top of their group ahead of the curtain-closing qualifier with Azerbaijan.
Russia met Azerbaijan twice in the 2010 World Cup qualifying campaign. After a 2-0 win in Moscow, Russia lost points in Baku as they were held to a 1-1 draw and finished second in their group.
“Azerbaijan will without doubt be highly motivated. They’re playing their last campaign match at their home ground,” Shirokov said.
“But we are motivated to win as well. And we all understand the match importance as the pass into the World Cup finals is at stake.”