In football as in life, history has a habit of repeating itself. Portugal and Russia, who locked horns during the qualifying phase for the 2006 FIFA World Cup Germany™, again find themselves in the same pool for Brazil 2014. On paper, these two teams are likely to contest first place in Group F.

Of the remaining sides in the section, Israel look to have the best chance of keeping pace with the big two, while Northern Ireland are likely to play their traditional role of awkward customers. Azerbaijan and Luxembourg, meanwhile, will aim to spring a surprise or two at home.

The favourites
Fans of Portugal were convinced that their national side had returned to the top table of world football when A Selecção das Quinas finished fourth at Germany 2006, their best placing since securing third spot in 1966. But they were unable to repeat the performance at South Africa 2010, in their fifth appearance at the finals of a FIFA World Cup. After holding Brazil to a 0-0 draw during the group stage, they were narrowly beaten by eventual world champions Spain 1-0 in the Round of 16. Since that disappointing exit, the team has undergone a new lease of life under the tutelage of coach Paulo Bento.

Russia’s supporters have also had their hopes dashed in recent times: their heart-breaking defeat in the play-offs for the 2010 FIFA World Cup at the hands of Slovenia, who progressed on the away goals rule after a 2-2 aggregate draw, still remains a sore point. Guus Hiddink’s tenure, which had started so well, is now consigned to the past, and replacement Dick Advocaat is faced with the tricky task of extracting the best out of a young squad with enormous potential.

The outsiders
Israel were unfortunate to miss out on South Africa 2010, but had only themselves to blame after dropping points in matches they were expected to win. The team recently gave Greece and Croatia a run for their money in UEFA EURO 2012 qualifying. As for Northern Ireland, it is now 25 years since their last appearance at FIFA’s flagship tournament. Always a tough prospect, especially at home, they are capable of producing outstanding results on their day, such as the 1-0 triumph over England during the qualifiers for Germany 2006.

Players to watch
Portugal have an array of talented performers in their squad, the pick of which are Cristiano Ronaldo and Nani up front, Joao Moutinho in midfield, and Pepe at the back. Russia will look to goalkeeper Igor Akinfeev, defender Alexander Anyukov, midfielder Yuri Zhirkov and front men Roman Pavlyuchenko and Andrei Arshavin to guide them to Brazil. For Israel, captain Yossi Benayoun is the lynchpin of the side, while Northern Ireland should be able to count on David Healy to chip in with a few important goals.

The crunch match
The two clashes between Portugal and Russia aside, both teams’ trips to Israel and Northern Ireland should prove crucial in the battle to top the section.

A look back
In London on 28 July 1966, Portugal claimed third place at the FIFA World Cup by beating the Soviet Union 2-1, courtesy of goals from Eusebio and Jose Torres, which were countered by an Eduard Malofeev strike. Legendary Russian goalkeeper. Lev Yashin had given his side hope by keeping the Portuguese attack at bay for long periods of the match, but ultimately to no avail.

The stat
7 – The number of goals scored by Portugal against Russia during the qualifying campaign for Germany 2006. Portugal won the home fixture 7-1, while the return match ended 0-0.

Did you know?
Dick Advocaat appears to be intent on putting as many countries on his CV as high-profile coaching troubleshooter, Bora Milutinovic. The Dutchman’s appointment as coach of Russia last year was the fifth time he has been handed the reins of a national side, after the Netherlands, the United Arab Emirates, Korea Republic and Belgium.