Few could argue that the two most dominant players in the world at this very moment are Cristiano Ronaldo and Zlatan Ibrahimovic. The former has hit an extraordinary 25 goals in just 17 matches for Real Madrid this season, while the latter has struck 14 in his last eight appearances for Paris Saint-Germain. The idea of the two facing off in back-to-back matches of huge consequence then is appetite whetting in the extreme. But the fact that the games will end with one of Ronaldo or Ibrahimovic not going to the World Cup next year means the tie between Portugal and Sweden will also be one tinged with a heavy degree of regret.
Both men have been dominant figures in their country’s setup for years and indeed have often been criticized at both club and international level for taking that dominance too far to the detriment of the team. Given their current support cast, however, it is Ronaldo that should be able to rely far more on a support cast which makes Portugal logical favorites for the tie.
Indeed, given the quality of players at their disposal, that Portugal are competing in the playoffs for a third-straight major tournament is a clear indictment of their under-performance. With Real Madrid duo Pepe and Fabio Coentrao in the back line, Monaco’s €25 million man Joao Moutinho providing the midfield creativity and with plenty more ability besides, in addition to Ronaldo, failure to beat Israel home or away in the group and drawing at home to Northern Ireland is inexcusable.
Where Portugal have struggled most over the years is finding a striker to finish the often superb buildup play. Against Sweden, Portugal will again turn to 31-year-old Helder Postiga. A far better player than he is remembered by English fans for his short-lived spell at Tottenham a decade ago, but not in the same class as many of his teammates.
Still, Ibrahimovic knows that for Sweden to make it to Brazil he will have to be responsible for both scoring and creating. Without the man who has just been voted Sweden’s Player of the Year for an eighth time, coach Erik Hamren has a thoroughly average side. The man from Malmo was the reason that Sweden finished ahead of both Austria and the Republic of Ireland in qualifying. Indeed much of the side’s creativity still comes from 37-year-old Anders Svensson, who is eight years removed from the high point of his domestic career in the English Premier League.
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Because of Ibrahimovic’s unique talents as both a target man and technical genius on the ball, his club sides have often been guilty of simply relying on him to the detriment of the overall aesthetic of the team. With Sweden, though, that is simply the smart strategy. While not having the same quality in support, the advantage Ibrahimovic does have is a group of players that will be more willing to sacrifice for their superstar and for the good of the team.
Prediction: Under Hamren, Sweden have evolved from the dour defensive unit of old, as they showed in a 4-4 draw in Germany during qualifying and, with Portugal likely to feel the pressure at home, they could secure another high-scoring draw that gives them a narrow edge for the second leg.
Portugal 2-2 Sweden