THE most hopeful news from the Russian front last Friday was the yellow card which Igor Denisov picked up against Macedonia in a 1-0 win in Moscow. It was his second of the tournament, which means he won't be around on Tuesday to annoy the Irish midfield like he did last October in the Aviva.
It was the central midfield triangle of Roman Shirokov, Denisov and Konstantin Zyryanov, which tore the Irish defence apart that day, and laid the foundations for a 3-0 lead after 50 minutes. Game over.
Taking Denisov out obviously weakens manager Dick Advocaat's hand, but his suspension underlines the ongoing problem with discipline that Advocaat has faced throughout this Group B campaign.
Denisov is the third of his squad to suffer suspension -- right-back Alexander Anyukov and centre-back Sergey Ignashevich were the others -- and, more worryingly, seven of his possible first team against the Republic of Ireland on Tuesday are on one yellow card and at risk of missing out on the vital game in Slovakia on October 7.
Advocaat is thus faced with a dilemma: should he leave some of these players on the sideline and keep them for the Slovakia game? Does he have the resources to cover for players like Yuriy Zhirkov, Roman Shirokov, Konstantin Zyryanov and Alexander Kerzhakov?
The answer is in the Group B table. Secure three points on Tuesday, and it won't matter what happens in Slovakia. So Ireland are likely to face a full-strength Russia, with Slovakia then getting the benefit of any indiscipline on the part of these key players.
In advance of the Russia game last October, Giovanni Trapattoni famously stated that he didn't know what Advocaat's tactics would be, but he would know after 10 minutes of the game.
After 11 minutes, the Russian midfield triangle had run the Irish central midfield duo of Glenn Whelan and Paul Green ragged and scored the first goal. They proceeded to dictate the trend of the game, but Trapattoni didn't act until after the third goal. He then moved Aiden McGeady into a more central role to support the midfield, and introduced Shane Long, which led to a belated Irish revival.
For Tuesday's game, Advocaat will be facing a much-changed Irish team, with two of the back four -- Sean St Ledger and Kevin Kilbane -- and two of the midfield -- Liam Lawrence and Paul Green -- suspended, injured or out of favour.
Advocaat, having won the battle of tactics with Trapattoni in Dublin, has every reason to be confident before Tuesday's game. Even if his team were less than impressive in their 1-0 win over Macedonia last Friday, there wasn't much about Ireland's performance against Slovakia that would have caused him to change his plans.
John Toshack had only three days with his new Macedonia team, but he organised them sufficiently to frustrate the Russians for long periods. Trapattoni will doubtless be planning more of the same.
Russia, a strong, physical team, are also well endowed with skilful forwards. Captain Andrey Arshavin is an excellent playmaker, but his withdrawn role has meant fewer goals from a player who once scored freely.
The goals can come from anywhere, with Alexander Kerzhakov the favoured number nine at present. Even though Roman Pavlyuchenko scored three against Armenia in June, he remains largely a substitute in Advocaat's plans.
Alan Dzagoev, who scored Russia's second goal in Dublin, was omitted in favour of Igor Semshov last Friday, and Semshov scored the winner before being replaced at half-time by Pavlyuchenko.
The danger for Ireland is that Russia, having dusted off the cobwebs against Macedonia, will be on top of their game on Tuesday.
Everything points to a torrid night in Moscow for the Irish.
Sunday Indo Sport