The Zaragoza forward's early first half goal proved indispensable for his team, which inflicted a first defeat on Fabio Capello's men and surge to the summit of Group FPortugal recorded a priceless 1-0 victory over Russia in their qualifier at the Estadio da Luz on Friday to keep its 2014 World Cup hopes well and truly alive.
Helder Postiga scored the game's lone goal after only nine minutes with a close-range volley from Miguel Veloso's free kick to send Portugal into a two point lead atop Group F, though Fabio Capello's men still hold two games in hand.
After winning their first four games in Group F, Russia was expected to make life very difficult for the Seleccao, but was hugely disappointing in Lisbon as the hosts clinched victory with little trouble, putting pressure back on third-placed Israel.
With Pepe suspended, Paulo Bento handed a competitive debut to Luis Neto in defence, with Nani benched in favor of Vieirinha on the right flank, while Russia saw captain Igor Denisov return to the starting XI.
The visitors were on the back foot right from the start, and it was no surprise to see them concede after only nine minutes after a strong beginning from an inspired Portugal side.
Veloso whipped in a free kick from the left, and Postiga glided in unmarked to neatly volley the ball home at the back post – the first goal conceded by Russia in World Cup qualifying.
It was all Portugal as the first half progressed, with Russia barely able to get out of its own half. Capello clearly recognized the need to shake things up, and hauled off Viktor Faizulin after only 21 minutes for Denis Glushakov.
And the Russia trainer was forced to make another early change after half an hour, as Aleksandr Anyukov, struggling with an injury, departed, with Aleksey Kozlov replacing him.
Portugal should have been two goals to the good immediately after, when Joao Moutinho picked out Vieirinha on the right, who in turn squared to Cristiano Ronaldo, but the Real Madrid man, from 12 yards, spooned his shot over.
And the hosts were fortunate that their profligacy was not punished when a flapping punch by Rui Patricio left him out of position and presented the ball to Dmitri Kombarov, who teed up Glushakov for a shot that rolled wide of an empty net.
Momentum began to swing in Russia’s favour as the half ended, and Portugal was left counting its blessings again when Fabio Coentrao’s trailing arm made contact with the ball inside the area, but the officials decided against awarding a penalty.
But Ronaldo attempted to drive his side back into the ascendancy at the start of the second half, driving narrowly wide before testing Igor Akinfeev at his near post with a low shot after racing past the last defender.
The second half seemed to be shaping up in much the same pattern as the first, with Portugal in control, although it was given a reminder of Russia’s quality when Aleksandr Kerzhakov sprinted behind Bruno Alves, but Patricio was there to smother at the near post.
And Vladimir Bystrov nearly brought the visitors level in stunning fashion with 22 minutes remaining, but fired narrowly over the bar after connecting perfectly with an overhead kick.Both sides spurned glorious chances late on; Ronam Shirokov firing right at Patricio from a gilt-edged position before Ronaldo was thwarted by a brilliant Akinfeev save with two minutes left.
But by then, Bento's men had done enough to ensure themselves of victory, which puts them top of the standings and leaves Group F wide open.