There is much interest this week in one World Cup playoff match in particular. Portugal against Sweden is more than a battle between two nations aiming to make it to Brazil, but it is a contest that will decide which of the world’s great players will not be partaking in their sport’s showpiece event. The performances of Cristiano Ronaldo and Zlatan Ibrahimovic will undoubtedly be crucial to the tie, the first leg of which takes place on Friday, but they will not decide the fate of their two nations alone.
Here are six players to watch for at the Estadio da Luz.
Zlatan Ibrahimovic (Sweden)
Ibrahimovic comes into the match in what even he himself calls the best form of his career. After going through a spell of under-performing for his country, he has scored six goals in nine appearances in qualifying to justify the idolized status he enjoys in Sweden. While the Paris Saint-Germain front man will be his country’s main source of goals, he will also be the creative linchpin in a side lacking quality elsewhere. His unique combination of attributes means he can fulfill both roles seamlessly.
Cristiano Ronaldo (Portugal)
Like Sweden’s star man, Portugal’s has also started the season in incredible form. A record of 24 goals in 17 appearances is staggering. It would be incredibly harsh to say that he has not delivered in quite the same way at international level, but Portugal have struggled to get the absolute best out of him. While he has a much better supporting cast than Ibrahimovic, Ronaldo lacks the quality of players he has at Real Madrid to open up space along the left flank. The 28-year-old will likely need to put in a true leader’s performance if he is to avoid missing out on the World Cup.
Mikael Lustig (Sweden)
The man expected to be largely responsible for containing Ronaldo will be right-back Lustig. The 26-year-old has faced criticism for some of his performances in a Sweden shirt, but claimed to be looking forward to the challenge of trying to neutralize one of the world’s best players. The Celtic man is also one of the few in the likely Sweden side to be playing in the Champions League.
There is rarely a dull moment with Pepe around. He can be a fine defender, but can equally be prone to moments of madness. It promises to be a fascinating duel between the Real Madrid man and Ibrahimovic, with Pepe likely to make full use of his often unsavory bag of tricks to aggravate Sweden’s danger man. Despite what should be a decent center-back partnership with Bruno Alves, Portugal shipped a costly three goals away to Israel in qualifying, while also conceding two to the minnows of Northern Ireland recently. Similar carelessness is likely to be punished in this playoff.
Kim Kallstrom (Sweden)
If reports are to be believed, it will be the Spartak Moscow man who will get the nod over veteran Anders Svensson in the center of Sweden’s midfield. Perhaps Kallstrom hasn’t fulfilled his early potential, but still can deliver quality with his left foot. It is his defensive contribution that will be vital against Portugal, though, and notably helping to stop the supply line to Portugal’s wingers.
Joao Moutinho (Portugal)
Moutinho’s creativity in the middle is crucial for Portugal. While Ronaldo gained the headlines in Euro 2012, Moutinho was arguably his side’s best performer. Despite being strongly linked with moves to the Premier League in recent seasons, he surprisingly joined Monaco from Porto in the summer where he has already laid on four assists. His supply line to Ronaldo and Nani out wide will be key.