Neither Cristiano Ronaldo nor Zlatan Ibrahimovic were able to produce performances to match the pre-game hype that surrounded their part in Portugal’s World Cup playoff with Sweden in Friday’s first leg. It was Ronaldo, though, who produced the game’s decisive moment with the only goal of the game late on. The pressure is now firmly on Sweden and their star man to secure a berth in Brazil next year.
Ibrahimovic was certainly not at his best in Lisbon. Sweden’s direct tactics were predictable and the Paris Saint-Germain man could have done more to bring others into the game; something at which he usually excels. However, Sweden’s stark negativity after the break gave him little opportunity to make a mark. His best moment of the game came in a much more positive opening period for Sweden when his clever step-over enabled a shot on target from Sebastian Larsson. And the Sunderland midfielder conceded that the rest of the team had to do more to support their focal point.
“We need to have a more attacking game. We need more possession higher up the pitch and not let Zlatan become so isolated,” he told reporters, according to Swedish publication Expressen.
The temptation to thump the ball up to Ibrahimovic and let him work his magic is a temptation that many of his teams have caved into over the years, but it is a tactic that is unlikely to lead Sweden to the World Cup. Kim Kallstrom and Rasmus Elm did diligent jobs defensively, but offered very little on the ball. Veteran Anders Svensson may well come into the starting lineup on Tuesday to help maintain possession and provide better service for Ibrahimovic.
Sweden need a great team performance in Solna to overturn their 1-0 deficit because the fact is that their individuals don’t match up to those of Portugal. Still, Paulo Bento’s team is one that is still less than the sum of their parts.
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Portugal dominated the second half on Friday yet created few good chances. Their strategy too often devolved to getting the ball out wide and putting hopeful crosses into the box. Right back Joao Pereira hit 12 crosses into the area and only connected with a teammate once.
Of course it was a cross from Miguel Veloso that eventually provided the goal, but it is hardly the best route to success against a physical Sweden side. It was also telling that Ronaldo found himself in the middle of the area to score. Sweden will not be too disappointed if Ronaldo spends most of his time playing as an orthodox forward, but it is a position he often feels obliged to occupy with his country due to a familiar lack of firepower from the team’s strikers.
Indeed, neither Helder Postiga nor his replacement Hugo Almeida was able to test Swedish goalkeeper Andreas Isaksson during the entire match. Sweden’s defense is far from watertight, but it still coped fairly handily with Portugal’s front men.
Given how poor Sweden were in Lisbon, coach Erik Hamren should consider himself fortunate to emerge with just a single-goal deficit to overturn. And the record of their talisman at the Friends Arena should breed confidence. Ibrahimovic has scored 10 goals in eight matches at his country’s national stadium and could well continue that fine record on Tuesday.
Portugal’s away record in qualifying also provides a source of optimism for Sweden. In finishing second in their group, Paulo Bento’s side lost to Russia, could only draw with Israel and needed to come from behind to beat the powerhouses of Luxembourg and Northern Ireland. Can Portugal come together and pull through when the pressure is on in Sweden?
Sweden can pose opposition genuine problems when forced to attack as they showed in coming back from 4-0 down in Germany last year and Ibrahimovic’s men could well get a win on home soil. But with Portugal a big threat on the break, chiefly through the pace of Ronaldo, they will fancy their chances of getting an away goal that ultimately sends them to the World Cup.
Prediction: Sweden 2-1 Portugal