It was billed as a showdown between two of the world’s greats. And, for once, that’s exactly how it panned out. In an extraordinary World Cup playoff second leg, Cristiano Ronaldo struck a brilliant hat-trick to outdo the two goals of Zlatan Ibrahimovic and send Portugal to Brazil at Sweden’s expense, with a 3-2 victory on the night and a 4-2 win on aggregate.
After Ronaldo grabbed the only goal in Lisbon last week, he looked to have put Portugal on the road to a comfortable path to the World Cup with the opener in Solna five minutes into the second half. But Ibrahimovic hit back with two goals in five minutes to suddenly put the momentum with the home side, who then needed to score just once more to progress on away goals. But Sweden’s adrenaline and desperation to get a winner meant they left themselves crudely exposed as Ronaldo twice raced into the clear to finish and end the hopes of the hosts.
With the Ballon d’Or set to be decided early next year, Ronaldo has surely now put himself in pole position, despite the best efforts of Ibrahimovic in recent months and on the night. As much as Ronaldo will get the headlines, though, it must also be said that he was aided by a better support cast. In particular, Joao Moutinho deserves massive credit for his two superb through balls for Ronaldo’s first and third goals.
Back on home soil, Sweden were in need of a more positive performance to get support for their star man up front and get back into the tie. Yet again, though, Erik Hamren’s side were initially extremely pragmatic in their approach. When they did try to go forward they did so with little conviction and yet struggled to keep Portugal at bay. Indeed, Ronaldo really should have added to the first goal he got in Lisbon last week inside the first 45 minutes.
Twice his excellent movement saw him get on the end of low crosses from the right, first from Joao Pereiria and then from Nani, but he failed to find the target on both occasions. In the aftermath Ronaldo gave a rueful look to the turf as if to blame the cold, hard surface in Solna.
By that point, Portugal had also forced Andreas Isaksson into a fine save when he had to be at full stretch to deny a powerful header form Bruno Alves. Finally, in the closing 10 minutes of the first half, Sweden found some attacking impetus. Their more direct play didn’t initially lead to any clear chances, with Ibrahimovic’s difficult volley comfortably clearing the crossbar.
In the opening exchanges of the second half, though, Ibrahimovic made his best contribution of the tie and created a golden chance to get his side level. The big striker showed great determination to outmuscle Miguel Veloso in the box and hook the ball back from the byline for Sebastian Larsson, but the Sunderland man took an unnecessary touch and saw his shot closed out impressively by Rui Patricio.
It was to prove a pivotal moment in the match and the tie. Just seconds later, Portugal went on another dangerous break and this time Ronaldo would not be so profligate in front of goal. With Sweden caught upfield, Moutinho received the ball in his own half and picked out a superb pass to meet the exceptional run of Ronaldo inside full-back Martin Larsson and the Real Madrid man took the ball inside the box before firing clinically into the net.
Sweden, who had brought on veteran midfielder Anders Svensson to offer more creativity, now needed three goals to progress. It was a massive task and one it was hard to envisage them pulling off. But then Ibrahimovic came to the party.
From a right-wing corner in the 68th minute, Bruno Alves was more concerned with grabbing Ibrahimovic’s shirt than getting to the ball and the striker was able to rise despite the unwanted attention and head into the bottom corner. Four minutes later he got his second. Portugal gave away a needless free-kick on the edge of the box and Sweden’s talisman took full advantage by blasting the ball underneath the wall and through the dive of Patricio.
The tie was suddenly finely poised and with the crowd fired up, Sweden appeared to hold the initiative. Fatally, though, they could not keep tabs on Ronaldo. On another quick break, Hugo Almeida fed the ball intelligently over the top to get the lightning quick forward away down the left and he made no mistake with a left-footed effort into the far corner.
Sweden now poured forward in greater numbers, leaving even more space at the other end. Only two minutes after his second goal, Ronaldo got a third. Once again he was supplied brilliantly by Moutinho and this time he finished coolly over the advanced Isaksson and into the roof of the net.
Ronaldo incredibly could have had a fourth goal in injury time, but that took nothing away from a sublime performance from an supreme athlete in his absolute prime and now looking to inspire his country similarly at the World Cup.