Russia are through to the UEFA EURO 2004™ play-offs after coming from behind to secure a 3-1 win against Georgia in Moscow.
Georgi Yartsev's side were made to sweat for their victory by a committed and mobile Georgia, but in the end they had to settle for a place in the play-offs after the morning leaders, Switzerland, won their final qualifier 2-0 against the Republic of Ireland in Basel.
The game started disastrously for Russia as Merab Zhordania's side showed how little they had been affected by the absence of injured Rangers FC striker Shota Arveladze, opening the scoring after just three minutes. The Russian defence allowed Aleksandr Iashvili time and space just outside the area and he happily fired a shot into Sergei I. Ovchinnikov's net off the inside of the right-hand post.
The home side, lifted by fanatical support at the Lokomotiv stadium, went on to dominate possession, but some fine Georgian defending limited their chances. Indeed, Ovchinnikov was to be the busier of the two goalkeepers throughout the first half, making a number of fine diving saves including one from Gocha Jamarauli after 27 minutes.
Russia levelled the scores after 29 minutes with Andrei Kariaka's cross from the left being met by the head of the tall Dmitri Bulykin who glanced his effort across Georgia goalkeeper Georgi Lomaia and into the net.
The equaliser did not entirely settle Russia who looked vulnerable on the counterattack and Ovchinnikov made a fine save to deny Georgi Demetradze after 37 minutes and another after 45 minutes as Levan Tskitishvili was allowed room to shoot.
However, Russia's efforts at the other end were rewarded with a second goal on the stroke of half-time. A cross from the left was headed back across the face of goal by Aleksandr Kerzhakov and deflected kindly off a team-mate for Yegor Titov to drive the ball past Lomaia.
The second half saw the pace dip slightly but Rolan Gusev should have added to Russia's lead after 50 minutes, blasting wide when the ball came to him unmarked in the area. In the end it took the arrival of young Dmitri Sytchev as a 56th-minute substitute to signal the end of Georgia's hopes.
The youngster was in supreme form, tormenting the Georgian defence down both flanks, and he had already passed up two good scoring opportunities when he completed a fine flowing move down the left after 73 minutes. Fellow substitute Marat Izmailov played himself into the area with a smart one-two, and laid off the ball for Sytchev to drive an unstoppable shot under Lomaia's crossbar.
The last three games we did the impossible - we put a team together," said Yartsev after the game. "However our task of reaching the finals is not yet complete - so there is no holiday in the dressing room." Meanwhile Georgia coach Zhordania said: "I want to congratulate Russia on making it to the play-offs. They won today because they wanted to win more than us. We didn't have such motivation."