Three-point cushion cheers Portugal

Portugal 2-0 Slovakia Fernando Meira and Cristiano Ronaldo score for Group 3 leaders.

By Hugo Pietra

Portugal took an important step towards next year's FIFA World Cup finals with a 2-0 win against Slovakia at the Estádio da Luz in Lisbon in qualifying Group 3 as Luís Figo ended his self-imposed year-long international exile.

Tight at the top
The two sides began the day level on points at the top of the section, with Russia defeating Latvia earlier on Saturday to join the top two with 14 points. With this victory, however, Luiz Felipe Scolari's side established a three-point lead in the standings ahead of Wednesday's next fixture, when the Portuguese visit Estonia while bottom side Luxembourg entertain Slovakia.

Counterattack chance
The UEFA EURO 2004™ runners-up started the game in confident fashion, urged on by 60,000 fans who witnessed some clever interplay between the Portuguese strikers in the early moments. For all the home team's possession, however, it was the visitors who came closest to taking a 16th-minute lead but, with only goalkeeper Ricardo to beat, Marek Mintál dragged his shot wide.

Well-worked corner
The Slovakian was made to pay for his profligacy five minutes later as the home side broke through with a well-worked corner. FC Barcelona playmaker Deco floated the set-piece towards Pauleta, whose deflection fell perfectly for Fernando Meira to rifle in at the far post.

Portugal pressing
Portugal threw men forward as they sought to build on that advantage with Slovakia seemingly shell-shocked, but Figo was unable to convert Caneira's left-wing cross on the half-hour. Four minutes later central defender Jorge Andrade headed wide, before Cristiano Ronaldo's firm shot was well dealt with by Slovakian goalkeeper Kamil Contofalský.

Fine free-kick
It was 2-0 four minutes before the interval, however, Ronaldo finding a way past Contofalský with a superb free-kick from just outside the penalty area. The goal emphasised Portugal's dominance in a match refereed by veteran official Pierluigi Collina, taking charge of an international fixture for the last time.

Portuguese dominance
The two-goal cushion allowed Portugal to control the game in the second half, stroking the ball around at will. For their part Slovakia relied on swift counterattacks, but failed to trouble a well-marshalled Portuguese back line and will now seek to get back on track in Luxembourg on Wednesday.