Jack: Forget Ibra; brilliant Ronaldo a step closer to Brazil

Kristian Jack
11/15/2013 6:48:31 PM
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It was billed as Cristiano Ronaldo vs Zlatan Ibrahimovic.

Two superstars in the game head-to-head on a billboard and then on the field. One winner goes to the World Cup in Brazil; the loser stays home.

It is a duel and a plot that would make Don King, Dana White or Vince McMahon weak at the knees.

The trio would likely remove the 20 'extras' placed on the pitch for a real one-on-one duel but this was not solely about entertainment. Not in leg one of the two-legged affair, anyway.

The Estadio de Luz in Lisbon was the stage, with two main characters in it, but it was always going to be more than just the two captains. At least for most of the game.

We were sold on Ronaldo vs Ibra but the moment the matchup started it turned into an 11-man tag team match.

Their faces would never appear on billboards but captains Ronaldo and Ibra tapped in others to attempt to gain a vital advantage for their team. Right back Joao Pereira had his moment in the middle of the ring, given constant space down the right flank, thanks to a Swedish narrow back four by design, to target Martin Olsson, while midfielders Joao Moutinho and Raul Meireles dictated the tempo in midfield enjoying an extra man against Sweden wanting to play a man closer to their talisman, Ibrahimovic.

The man with that responsibility was Johan Elmander, known more these days for his work rate rather than his goals (never a good thing for a striker), but next to the PSG man he provided a comfort blanket. Swedish coach Erik Hamren will have had nightmares of his team playing a 9-0-1 system with Ibrahimovic as disconnected to his team-mates as he is in overall talent. Ibra would tap Elmander into the theatre to sit defensively on Miguel Veloso and provide an aerial, physical threat that would create more space for himself.

At times it worked but at halftime, with the game scoreless, the stats showed just what everyone, other than the aggressive promoters, knew too well. Ronaldo's 23 touches ranked ninth on his team with only his goalkeeper and ineffective striker, Helder Postiga, less involved. Ibrahimovic, meanwhile, was involved even less, touching it just 17 times, and more than just three of his teammates.

With so much on the line, it was predictably cagey. Ronaldo hit a free kick into a wall, at the other end Ibrahimovic stood over one for Sweden before tapping Kim Kallstrom into the ring and the left footed midfielder blasted the ball inches wide of the top left post.

The Swedes offered the flanks to Portugal and they gladly took them. It allowed Pereira and left back Fabio Coentrao to play larger parts than they have for their clubs this season but it also forced Ronaldo and Nani inside, to play closer to the front man, and that made it easier to defend against, particularly with the ineffective Manchester United winger often giving the ball away.

The first 45 minutes was average and the next 35 was even worse. Sweden got deeper and deeper, hoping for a sucker punch from a set piece, but this Portugal side is too mature for that. What the Ronaldo vs Ibra hype monsters failed to recognize was this Portugal team is comfortable when Ronaldo isn't involved. The midfield three have an understanding on how to control a game and their two centre backs rarely make a mistake and are far too experienced and talented to be overawed by the presence of Ibrahimovic.

Ronaldo is used to letting his team do the work until he pounces. Four years ago in a World Cup playoff against Bosnia and Herzegovina, the Real Madrid man missed both legs through injury. His place in the World Cup lay in the hands of his teammates and they delivered. Two years ago, again in a playoff against Bosnia, Portugal were resolute in a 0-0 first leg away from home before coming home and allowing the brilliant Ronaldo to start a 6-2 onslaught with a trademark free kick goal.

At the European Championships last summer, Ronaldo was poor against Denmark in the group stage but his team won at the death 3-2. They waited for the genius to step up and he did exactly that, with brilliant performances against the Dutch and Czechs, carrying his team to a semifinal against Spain where they matched the World Champions in all departments except penalties.

That day in Donetsk, Ronaldo chose to be the fifth taker in the shootout and, uncharacteristically, his teammates let him down. Ronaldo couldn't save them that time, denied a penalty in a 4-2 shootout loss.

Portugal has never done things the easy way and that's why they found themselves, once again, on show against Zlatan and his 10 extras in Lisbon on Friday night. It appeared the game was heading towards a drab 0-0 until Portugal found space again down the left flank. Veloso, this time, was the man on the wing, taking a fast throw in, creating a quick one-two with substitute Hugo Almeida, before sending in a delicious ball that needed a brave run and head on the end of it.

As the ball swung dangerously into the six yard box, the main character had his big moment in the plot. Ronaldo brushed aside Olsson, getting his head to the ball and sending it into the net for the game's only goal. At a similar time to his headed winner against the Czechs at last summer's European Championships, Ronaldo had done it once again, delivering the key blow of the game and, possibly, the knockout blow in the matchup.

It was a fitting moment. Portugal is too often criticized for not being good enough for Ronaldo but they are certainly good enough to provide him with yet another big platform to deliver on and that is why it is important they advance over Sweden in this playoff.

A common thought heading into this game was that it will be sad that both Ronaldo and Ibrahimovic will not be in Brazil, but the reality is it will be a complete let down if a man as talented as Ronaldo is not in Brazil. He is on a different level to Ibrahimovic, who is a fine player himself, showing regularly, just like in this match, that he is one of the finest players to play the game. In Portugal he has a team that won't win the World Cup but they are certainly good enough to give him opportunities to show the world his talent (unlike Sweden with Ibrahimovic). In South Africa they had a coach who wouldn't allow that to happen but under Paulo Bento things are different.

They do, of course, only have one foot on the plane to Brazil and their final destination will be determined in Sweden on Tuesday. It will likely be billed as Ronaldo holding advantage over Ibrahimovic, but it should be promoted as being the show that should book Ronaldo's ticket to Brazil. That is one certainly worth signing up for.

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