Slovenia, Russia play key game for World Cup spot

Slovenia is back on familiar ground, playing at home and on grass, and looking to overturn its one-goal deficit against Russia on Wednesday with a spot at next year’s World Cup at stake.

Slovenia, which made its only World Cup in 2002, scored a late away goal on Saturday on the artificial surface in Moscow, losing 2-1. A 1-0 win at home in Maribor would give Slovenia a spot at the tournament in South Africa.

“The Russians didn’t manage to break our idea of getting to the World Cup,” Slovenia coach Matjaz Kek said.

Besides playing in front of a home crowd, Slovenia will also be happy to get back on natural grass.

Kek said the artificial field in Moscow posed “difficulties we did not expect,” and forward Milivoje Novakovic called it “completely another world.”

“The grass is Maribor is different, better and more comfortable for us, which could be crucial,” Novakovic said.

Slovenia, which gained independence from Yugoslavia in 1991, is eager to reach the World Cup after its tournament debut in South Korea and Japan seven years ago. At that tournament, Slovenia failed to win any of its three games.

Russia, however, has scored in every qualifying match but one, and recorded at least a goal in each of its five away matches.

Russia coach Guus Hiddink admitted that his team’s failure to preserve the two-goal lead in the first leg “left the question of the winner open.”

“Mathematically, all is possible,” Hiddink said. “Yet we have a slight advantage. … I told the players that they should restore their form and be confident.”

Russia is expected to go on the attack again, and so will Slovenia, which needs to win to advance.

“I’m not sure they will be as good (attacking) as at playing a defensive football,” Russia striker Dmitry Sychev said.

Slovenian state-run news agency STA said Russian President Dmitri Medvedev could attend the game Wednesday. The Kremlin hasn’t confirmed it, but Medvedev is attending an EU-Russia summit in Stockholm and could make the trip to Maribor.

Both prime ministers – Slovenia’s Borut Pahor and Russia’s Vladimir Putin – attended the match in Moscow on Saturday.

Associated Press writers Snjezana Vukic in Zagreb and Leonid Chizhov in Moscow contributed to this report.