Russia 2-1 Slovenia: Bilyaletdinov Brace Enough As Home Side Hold Off Late Rally

Diniyar Bilyaletdinov netted a brace for Russia before Slovenia staged a late comeback that nearly produced an equaliser.

Guus Hiddink's Russia lined up in a 4-4-2 setup, with Andrey Arshavin supporting off-form Roman Pavlyuchenko, who was rumored to have lost his starting role, in attack. Also coming as somewhat of a surprise was the inclusion of Yuri Zhirkov, who has struggled for playing time since his summer signing with Chelsea.

Slovenia coach Matjaz Kek sent out his side in a 4-4-2 formation as well, with just one change to the side that beat San Marino 3-0 in their last outing: Robert Koren took the place of Dalibor Stevanovic.

From the opening whistle, Russia were dominant in possession in what proved to be a very intimidating atmosphere that included Vladimir Putin as one of the spectators.

After the opening five minutes, and no real threat from the hosts, Slovenia became more comfortable on the ball, and striker Milivoje Novakovic used his strength and height to make life difficult for the Russian defenders. The Koeln striker proved a big distraction when he sprung the offside trap before setting up Valter Birsa, whose shot was deflected over the bar.

Russia responded soon thereafter when Zhirkov brilliantly ran up the left side, cut inward, and shot on goal. Samir Handanovic did very well to save with his outstretched leg.

After the two sides traded glancing blows, the two teams' defences adapted and solidified well. Zhirkov was always dangerous down the left, but was never allowed the chance to run into the Slovenia penalty area like he did before. The Russians continued to dominate possession, but Zhirkov, Arshavin & Co. were always foiled.

On the other end, Novakovic continued to give Russia problems, but his team-mates were largely incompetent in front of goal. Just under a half hour in, Zlatko Dedic beat Russia goalkeeper Igor Akinfeev to the ball, but his shot from a tough angle lacked power, and was shepherded out of play.

Russia caught a good chance on 32 minutes when Sergey Ignashevich rifled in a free kick from long range, but Handanovic did well to parry the ball away.

The home side finally broke through with a majestic goal from Diniyar Bilyaletdinov. Pavlyuchenko picked out the Everton winger with his back to goal. Bilyaletdinov turned clockwise, cut back to the right, and sliced his shot past Handanovic.

Controversy struck just before the break, after Miso Brecko delivered a harsh, albeit fair, challenge on Arshavin. The Arsenal man retaliated by pushing over his opponent, and was shown a yellow card.

After the half-time break, the two teams came out unchanged. Russia, not always convincing in the first period, came out in much improved form. Arshavin flashed a header wide before Handanovic saved well from Pavlyuchenko and Ignashevich.

A goal seemed inevitable, and came as Bilyaletdinov completed his brace on 51 minutes. After some clever approach play, Arshavin crossed for his left-wing team-mate, who mis-touched the ball off Igor Denisov's foot. Somewhat luckily, the ball rebounded back to Bilyaletdinov, who struck into the lower-left corner.

Having earned a comfortable lead, the home side then focused on containment, and played a bit further back while maintaining a distinct advantage in possession, and hitting their opponents on the counter.

Despite sending more and more men forward, Slovenia's forwards were starved of service. There was absolutely no opportunity to break away, which in the first half was the main source of the visitors' offence. The once-threatening Novakovic barely saw the ball in the second half, and instead it was the Russians who appeared more likely to score the next goal.

That goal nearly came on 68 minutes, but Pavlyuchenko's diving header was saved in the middle of goal after a well-weighted cross from Konstantin Zyryanov. Five minutes later, Arshavin nearly collected a through-ball that would have produced the third goal, but could not.

Two minutes from full-time, Slovenia took a well earned goal after Akinfeev made a world class save to deny Robert Koren. The ball rebounded to Nejc Pecnik, who headed in from close range.

Deep in injury time, Slovenia centre-back Marko Suler raced to the back post, but again Akinfeev made a world class save to force a corner. The visitors were unable to convert from the set piece, and the referee blew the final whistle shortly thereafter.

It was a well-earned victory for Russia, but Slovenia have to fancy their chances of qualifying for the World Cup.

Clark Whitney,