ST. PETERSBURG, RUSSIA - JULY 22: The Russia football coach Fabio Capello attends the Russian Premier League match between FC Zenit St. Petersburg and FC Amkar Perm at the Petrovsky Stadium on July 22, 2012 in St. Petersburg, Russia. (Photo by Mike Kireev/Epsilon/Getty Images)
Fabio Capello and Russia open World Cup Qualifying with a tough, but very winnable test against Northern Ireland.
Northern Ireland won't be appearing in the 2014 World Cup, but they've proven over the last two major qualifying cycles that they can be a massive pest. They were a thorn in Slovenia's side during Euro 2012 qualifying and prevented the World Cup participants from making their second straight major tournament. In World Cup 2010 qualifying, they made life hard for the Czech Republic, as well as that same Slovenia side. They always seem to have someone's number, and Group F's participants will hope that Russia is the side they harass this time around.
The Russians have hired Fabio Capello to engineer a turnaround in their fortunes after their embarrassing Euro 2012 exit. They crushed the Czech Republic in their opening fixture and appeared to be a lock to progress to the knockout stages, but they fell apart over the next two matches. Russia now faces a tough path back to the World Cup, and must better Portugal in their group to avoid a playoff.
Capello will re-instate Igor Akinfeev as starting goalkeeper after injuries and a lack of form kept him out of the No. 1 shirt for the Euros. He's also going with a young set of forwards and does not have Andrei Arshavin, Roman Pavlyuchenko or Pavel Pogrebnyak in his team. Veteran left back Yuri Zhirkov and midfielder Igor Semshov are off the squad as well. Alan Dzagoev, the 22-year-old CSKA Moscow star, is likely to become the centerpiece of Capello's team going forward.
Russia should win at home, but if they don't grab an early goal, things might get tough on them. Northern Ireland don't have much in the way of technical quality or goal-scoring threats, but they do have solid defenders, an experienced goalkeeper and athleticism in midfield.
Game Date/Time: Friday, 11 a.m. ET, 7 p.m. local
Venue: Lokomotiv Stadium, Moscow, Russia
TV: ESPN Deportes (U.S. - Spanish), Sportsnet Regional (Canada), Sky Sports 1 (U.K.)
Online: ESPN3 (U.S.)