Portugal coach Paulo Bento has insisted that the captaincy of his country has not put undue pressure on star man Cristiano Ronaldo. Portugal’s World Cup playoff with Sweden has been dominated by talk of a battle between arguably the world’s two most in-form players, Ronaldo and Zlatan Ibrahimovic. After Portugal disappointed in their qualification group, finishing second to Russia, Bento denied that the captaincy was holding back their star man.
“It doesn’t seem that way, he took it on board very naturally,” he said in an interview with FIFA.com. “It’s true that he’s still young, but we’re now talking about a more mature, more experienced player. He didn’t take the role just because of his play and leadership skills, but also because he’s a player his team-mates really respect. We’re extremely pleased with everything he does as part of the national squad.”
Ronaldo struck four goals in qualifying, but three of them came in a victory over Northern Ireland in September. With Portugal, in the end, finishing just a single point behind Russia in their group, draws home and away to Israel proved costly. The Euro 2012 semifinalists now head into Friday’s first leg in Lisbon with no margin for error if they are to make it to Brazil next year.
To do so they will likely have to keep Ibrahimovic quiet in order to deny the 32-year-old what could be a last appearance at a World Cup. Ibrahimovic has scored 14 goals in his last eight appearances for Paris Saint-Germain and believes that he has “never played better.”
"I evolve all the time and even if I'm 32 now, I have the feeling that I keep improving and that I've never played this well," the Sweden captain said in his pre-match press conference. "For that, one has to train hard, be mentally strong and have the experience I have after playing with fantastic players and clubs. I hope this can continue.”
Ibrahimovic was quick to point out, though, that the tie is more than about just two players. Sweden coach Erik Hamren’s main selection dilemma has been over the central midfield berths. The country’s most-capped player, Anders Svensson, played a big part in qualifying, scoring a crucial winner over the Republic of Ireland in September, but the 37-year-old will have to make do with a place on the bench, with Kim Kallstrom and Rasmus Elm getting the nod.
Portugal coach Bento has been sweating on the fitness of Fabio Coentro , but the Real Madrid left-back is expected to start.
D: Pereira, Bruno Alves, Pepe, Coentrao
M: Meireles, Veloso, Moutinho
F: Nani, Postiga, Ronaldo
D: Lustig, Antonsson, Nilsson, M. Olsson
M: Larsson, Elm, Kallstrom, Kacaniklic
F: Elmander, Ibrahimovic
Where to watch: The first leg of the World Cup playoff will kick off from the Estadio da Luz at 2.45 p.m. ET. Coverage will be provided by ESPN Deportes, with a live stream available on ESPN3.