PARIS (AFP) –
Cristiano Ronaldo’s Portugal face a struggle to book an automatic World Cup berth after they just squeaked a 3-3 draw away to Israel on Friday, leaving them four points adrift of Group F leaders Russia.
Russia had hoped to bolster that margin with a win later away to Northern Ireland but Fabio Capello’s men must wait 24 hours after heavy snow in Belfast forced a postponement with the Windsor Park pitch unplayable.
Despite the presence of the likes of Real Madrid star Ronaldo, Portugal have struggled in recent qualifying tournaments.
Having already dropped four points from their opening four fixtures they again found themselves on the back foot — despite taking a second-minute lead through Bruno Alves.
The Zenit St Petersburg veteran headed in from a corner but thereafter it was all Israel.
Fine strikes from Tomer Hemed, of Spanish side Mallorca, midway through the first half and Eden Ben Basat on 40 minutes, followed by a Rami Gershon header in the 70th minute left the hosts on the brink of an upset.
But within two minutes former Tottenham striker Helder Postiga had pulled one back and then Fabio Coentrao, who had already hit the crossbar, rescued a point for Paulo Bento’s side after Hugo Almeida nodded on a Carlos Martins cross.
The draw leaves both Israel and the Portuguese on eight points from five games but with only the group winners guaranteed a berth in the finals in Brazil, the Russians appear to hold the whip hand.
“The goal after just two minutes should have buoyed us but instead it ended up doing the opposite — we let our intensity drop and weren’t aggressive defensively,” Bento told Portuguese television.
“We weren’t effective enough. We didn’t score enough goals from the chances we made. Israel pretty much had three chances and scored three goals.”
Ronaldo had a quiet game by his own exalted standards and, adding to his frustration in front of goal, picked up a yellow card in the second half as the Portuguese showed the kind of shortcomings which marred their route to Euro 2012.
He will miss Tuesday’s trip to Azerbaijan as a result.
In Belfast, meanwhile, former England coach Capello and his players had trained on Thursday ahead of the qualifier, but overnight snow and rain forced Norwegian referee Tom Hagen to call off the match and reschedule it for 1500GMT on Saturday.
The postponement also means Capello’s team will have less time to recover before their glamour friendly against Brazil at Chelsea‘s Stamford Bridge on Monday.
Later Friday, England were looking to dislodge Group H early pacesetters Montenegro with a win away to ultra-minnows San Marino with the Montenegrins at Moldova.
Topping the bill in Group A meanwhile was a politically-charged game in Zagreb between Croatia and Serbia, components of the former Yugoslavia which disintegrated in the 1990s amid a vicious civil war.
Croatia stand second level on points with Belgium while the Serbs have made a slow start and are six points adrift.
Germany, who have never lost a World Cup qualifier away from home — they have only lost twice on home soil — top Group C, three points clear of Sweden and the three-times world champions are in action in Astana against Kazakhstan.
The Swedes will look to stay in touch with a home success over Republic of Ireland in Solna.
World champions Spain host Group I tailenders Finland while France, who are level pegging with the Spaniards on points, host Georgia.Published 22 Mar 2013, 23:10 IST