Northern Ireland's World Cup qualifying campaign got off to a losing start as goals from Viktor Fayzulin and Roman Shirokov gave Fabio Capello's Russia a 2-0 win in Moscow.
The visitors set up to steal a point and for half an hour looked as though they might, only for Fayzulin to break the deadlock with a smart finish from eight yards. Russia's second came from a hotly-disputed penalty, Shirokov coolly converting after left-back Craig Cathcart had been harshly treated by the referee.
Northern Ireland boss Michael O'Neill made a couple of big calls in his team selection, handing 34-year-old goalkeeper Roy Carroll a first competitive start for six years. He also opted to leave Dean Shiels on the bench in favour of Jamie Ward despite man-of-the-match performances in his last two appearances.
Alexander Kerzhakov, whose pre-match assessment of Northern Ireland caused a minor stir, had the first shot of the match but could not test Carroll from the edge of the area. Russia came again and a neat first touch from Alan Dzagoev gave Kerzhakov a second chance but this time he made a poor connection.
The ball continued to follow the Zenit St Petersburg forward and in the 18th minute he had his best chance yet. Vladimir Bystrov touched the ball on to leave him eight yards from goal with the defence wrong-footed. But instead of striking early he took an extra touch and still managed to screw the shot wide.
Russia broke the deadlock after half an hour. Bystrov unlocked the defence with a carefully-weighted pass, Kerzhakov centred the ball from the edge of the penalty box and the onrushing Fayzulin sent a first-time effort into the top corner.
The second half began in flat fashion, briefly brought to life when Vasili Berezutsky headed Dmitry Kombarov's 54th-minute corner just wide. Bystrov almost enticed a penalty out of Cathcart when he surged into the box but instead opted to stay on his feet and look for Kerzhakov. Jonny Evans was alert to the danger and beat his man to the ball.
Bystrov injected some life into proceedings with a jinking run towards goal, ended when Corry Evans tripped him a yard outside the area. That gave Kerzhakov the chance to try his luck from an inviting position and he was close to doubling the lead, crashing his shot against the post.
With just under quarter of an hour left Russia were awarded the softest of penalties, Alexander Kokorin going down under minimal contact from Cathcart. Northern Ireland were furious, not least when Cathcart was booked, but that did not stop Shirokov rolling home the spot-kick.
Northern Ireland were rightly denied a penalty of their own in the closing moments when Gareth McAuley called for handball, more in hope than expectation. Andy Little and, belatedly, Shiels were summoned from the bench but the Rangers pair had no real chance to affect the game.