Cristiano Ronaldo headed in the decisive goal to give Portugal an advantage over Sweden, in the opening match of their World Cup play-off tie. The lone goal of the match would come in the 82nd minute, when Miguel Veloso swung in a cutting cross. Ronaldo ducked low, diving to meet the ball with his head, and steered it into the back of the net.
In what was built up to be a showdown between two of the most elite international goal-scorers in the world,
Ibrahimovic was unable to make any impact on the game. In fact, he failed to make a single touch on the ball in Portugal’s defensive third. However, the attention given to the imposing striker did open chances for others.
Portugal’s defense was clearly overcompensating to cover Zlatan, a tactic which allowed the creative players in Sweden’s midfield ample space and opportunity in the first half. Elmander, Larsson, and Kallstrom all made threatening attempts on goal. However, Portugal were able to greatly limit Sweden’s chances and effectively kept their opposition quiet.
In the second half, Sweden lost all intent to score. The Swedes set up shop at the back, looking to squeeze out a draw from the tie. Portugal were frustrated by Sweden’s organization. But, eventually, it would be the lack of pressure from Sweden that would undue them. With 68% of possession, the Portuguese were given chance after chance to break down the Swedish defense.
As it grew late, there was a looming doubt over Portugal’s resolve. But finally, with only eight minutes remaining, Veloso was able to find Ronaldo for a late winner. In the middle of the box and surrounded by defenders, Ronaldo made no hesitation. After putting his side ahead, Ronaldo nearly scored again just after play resumed, firing another firm header towards goal. This time it would come clanking back off of the crossbar.
After the match, Sweden manager Erik Hamrén spoke to his disappointment with his defense’s lack of concentration in the late goal. However, their defensive core did manage the Portuguese side well for the majority of the game. The real issue Sweden faces lies with the performance of one man. If they are to have any chance of turning the tide back in their favor, they will need Zlatan Ibrahimovic to take control.
Portugal travel to Solna, Sweden for the return leg this coming Tuesday. The pressure will be on Sweden’s attacking core to take on Portugal’s defense. But, in reality, their chances for a spot in the World Cup lie in the hands of Ibrahimovic. If he can show his abilities in the same way he has recently for PSG in France, he fully has the potential to take his country through.
For the Portuguese, it will likely be a repeat-effort in terms of tactics. They will look to work possession and to attack from wide positions, stretching the Swedish defense. Of course, the longer the match goes without a goal, the more likely Portugal will be to pull back and hold on to their advantage. But, considering Cristiano Ronaldo’s form on the pitch, the smart money says Portugal will score again with Sweden vying for a goal.
One fact is already certain of Tuesday’s outcome. No matter which team ends up qualifying, one of the world’s greatest goal-scorers won’t be featured in the coming World Cup.