When the World Cup playoff fixtures were announced, there was one that certainly caught everyone’s eye above all others: Sweden vs Portugal; also known as Zlatan Ibrahimovic vs Cristiano Ronaldo. Here was an opportunity to see two of the finest footballers of this generation battle to secure their country a spot in next year’s showpiece tournament in Brazil. With one leg down and the decider taking place in Sweden this week, we thought we’d take this opportunity to ask the question: who belongs in the World cup more?
Cristiano vs Zlatan
It is impossible to see a matchup between Sweden and Portugal without considering these men. It goes without saying that the two Ballon d’Or nominees are both ludicrously talented and the second leg in Portugal promises to be a real footballing feast. Ronaldo’s goal tally since his Real Madrid move in 2009 is frankly absurd, whilst Ibrahimovic has gone from strength to strength since his transfer to Paris Saint Germain.
Which one would we prefer to see in Brazil next summer? Well for me, it’s got to be Ronaldo. Whilst there is no doubting that Ibrahimovic is a very talented footballer, there is still that nagging suspicion that he doesn’t quite turn up for the big games. In my mind, Ronaldo is currently the best footballer on the planet (yes, better than Messi), and the idea of him not being present at the World Cup is unthinkable. Ibrahimovic doesn’t seem to agree though and voiced his thoughts last week when he suggested that the World Cup needed him more than his Portuguese counterpart. Sorry Zlatan, the proof is most certainly in the pudding on this one.
What about the rest of the players?
It wouldn’t be sensible to base our decision solely on which of the two star players we would prefer to see in Brazil, and with that in mind, let’s consider the rest of the players the two sides have to offer.
As well as the brilliant Ronaldo, Portugal’s best side also boasts the talents of: Joao Moutinho, Miguel Veloso, Raul Meireles, Fabio Coentrao, Pepe and Nani. Sweden have…Sebastian Larsson (currently plying his trade at second-bottom Premier League club Sunderland) and Johan Elmander (currently on loan at Norwich City, former Bolton Wanderers reject). To be perfectly honest, it’s not a difficult decision.
Although it’s clear which side is sprinkled with more stardust, it must be said that ultimately reputation doesn’t count for an awful lot. Portugal have only got themselves to blame for failing to secure automatic qualification, failing to finish above Russia in Group F. So whilst there’s no doubt that the thought of watching Portugal at the World Cup is more appealing on paper, their form suggests that they aren’t that great to watch right now.
Which team would do better at the World Cup?
Once again, on paper there’s little doubt that Portugal would be far more likely to perform well in Brazil. But once again, football isn’t played on paper, and if Portugal put in the same sort of uninspiring performances that earned them second in a group containing Russia, Israel and Northern Ireland, then the chances are that they’d be unlikely to progress past the group stage.
Sweden’s recent World Cup history suggests that a second round exit is the best that they can hope for, whilst Portugal have at least shown in the past that they can be a force to be reckoned with in the big competitions.
What happened in the first leg?
Given the coverage given to the pick of the playoffs, the game rather failed to live up to its billing, with Portugal winning 1-0 thanks to a Ronaldo header. The game was quite a scrappy affair, but it was Portugal who headed off the pitch with a crucial advantage ahead of this week’s clash.
One of the most notable things about the game was the fact that Ibrahimovic was almost totally anonymous; the Swedish star doing nothing to dispel accusations of ‘big game bottling’ that have been leveled at him in the past.
Portugal head to Sweden with that crucial advantage, and the fact that the Portuguese don’t have to go out and score could be one of the crucial factors in deciding the end result of this tie.
What sort of game is it likely to be?
Basically, Sweden have to go for broke and hope that their defence can remain intact. They will need to see a lot more from captain Zlatan and they will be hoping for a much more fluid performance from the whole team. The issue for Sweden is that with it being incumbent upon them to score a goal, Portugal have the attractive option of sitting back and waiting, knowing that Sweden have to attack. Given the pace that this Portuguese side possesses, they’ll no doubt look to carve Sweden apart on the break, and that could well be the difference between the two sides.
What are the key battles?
Zlatan Ibrahimovic vs Pepe: Zlatan managed just one shot during the first leg, and this was in no small part down to the effective stifling of Pepe. If Pepe can have the same effect on Ibrahimovic this time around, the chances are that Portugal will progress. For all his posturing and self-congratulation, this is the time for Ibrahimovic to stand up and be counted. The whole world is watching.
Joao Moutinho vs Kim Kallstrom: Whilst Ronaldo is the one who scores the goals for Portugal, Moutinho is the engine of the side, and he dominated proceedings last week, touching the ball over 100 times. Stopping Moutinho goes a long way towards stifling the Portuguese attack, and Kallstrom is the man who will be deployed to keep him quiet. No doubt his teammates and manager will be hoping he does a better job than last week.
Cristiano Ronaldo vs Mikael Lustig: He’s already had a crucial impact on this tie, and Ronaldo will be very keen to finish things off on Tuesday. Lustig is the man entrusted with keeping the Real Madrid man quiet (as if any defender in the world can do that at the moment), and although he did a good job last week, Ronaldo still managed to sneak into the box and grab the only goal of the game. As with Ibrahimovic, keeping Ronaldo quiet is key to nullifying his team’s threat.