Fabio Capello's Russia rises to beat rejigged Northern Ireland
Russia 2 Northern Ireland 0: Northern Ireland's World Cup qualifying campaign got off to a losing start as goals from Viktor Fayzulin and Roman Shirokov gave Fabio Capello's Russia three points in Moscow.
The visitors set up to steal a point and for half an hour looked as though they might, only for Fayzulin to break the deadlock with a smart finish from eight yards. Russia's second came from a hotly-disputed penalty, Shirokov coolly converting after left-back Craig Cathcart had been harshly treated by the referee.
The Northern Ireland manager, Michael O'Neill, made a couple of big calls in his team selection, handing 34-year-old goalkeeper Roy Carroll a first competitive start for six years and confirming the demotion of previous number one Lee Camp in the process. He also opted to leave Dean Shiels on the bench in favour of Jamie Ward, despite man-of-the-match performances in his last two appearances.
Northern Ireland started, as expected, by packing the midfield area and leaving Kyle Lafferty to forage for long balls in attack and he dispossessed Vasily Berezutsky in the final third after only four minutes. He was unable to pick out Ward with the cross but it raised the spirits of a travelling contingent numbering around 200.
Alexander Kerzhakov had the first shot of the match but could not test Carroll from the edge of the area. Russia came again and a neat first touch from Alan Dzagoev gave Kerzhakov a second chance but this time he connected poorly.I * the 18th minute he had his best chance yet when Vladimir Bystrov touched the ball on to leave him eight yards from goal but instead of striking early he took an extra touch and still managed to screw the shot wide.
The home side were having the lion's share of the ball but were let down too often by poor final passes and after half an hour Russia broke the deadlock. Bystrov unlocked the defence with a carefully weighted pass, Kerzhakov centred the ball from the edge of the penalty box and the onrushing Fayzulin sent a first-time effort into the top corner.
Northern Ireland had further cause for concern on the stroke of half-time when Jonny Evans appeared to injure himself volleying a dead ball into the stands. The Manchester United defender emerged after half-time, ruling out any serious injury concern, but did not appear to move with comfort.
The second half began in flat fashion, briefly brought to life when Berezutsky headed Dmitri Kombarov's 54th-minute corner just wide of the far post. Bystrov almost enticed a penalty out of Cathcart when he surged into the box from the right flank but instead opted to stay on his feet and look for Kerzhakov. Evans was alert to the danger and beat his man to the ball.
With an hour gone neither side appeared desperate to shift the momentum of the game, Northern Ireland seemingly content to leave their pursuit of an equaliser to the last.
With just under quarter of an hour left, Russia were awarded the softest of penalties when Alexander Kokorin went down under minimal contact from Cathcart.
Northern Ireland were furious, not least when Cathcart was booked, but that did not stop Shirokov rolling the spot-kick home.
Northern Ireland were rightly denied a penalty of their own in the closing moments when McAuley called for handball, more in hope than expectation.