5 things to know about Portugal vs Sweden playoff
14 November 2013, 14:38
Lisbon - The encounter between Portugal and Sweden is the marquee match-up in the European playoffs to complete the continent's 13 entries for next year's World Cup.
Portugal and Sweden finished second in their qualifying groups behind Russia and Germany, respectively.
Here are five things to know about the first-leg game in Lisbon on Friday. The second leg is at the Swedish national stadium on Tuesday.
Just one not both
One of Europe's most sensational goalscorers won't be thrilling the crowds in Brazil.
Portugal's Cristiano Ronaldo and Sweden's Zlatan Ibrahimovic are two of the game's top showmen, and prolific scorers, with the kind of talent that can light up stadiums. And both are in top form — they each bagged a hat trick for their clubs last weekend.
Ronaldo's third hat trick of the Spanish season for Real Madrid made him the top scorer in La Liga with 16 goals in 13 rounds. He has added another eight in four Champions League games.
The 28-year-old winger, who was crowned FIFA world player of the year in 2008, is Portugal's second-highest scorer after Eusebio, with 43 strikes in 107 appearances.
Swedish defender Mikael Lustig has the job of marking Ronaldo — and says he'll need some help, because "support is the secret in a game like this."
Ibrahimovic is Sweden's second all-time scorer, with 46 goals. He has racked up 15 goals in 16 games for Paris Saint-Germain this season, including seven in the Champions League.
The 32-year-old striker was the French league's top scorer last season and can swing a game in his team's favor. A year ago, he scored all of Sweden's goals in a 4-2 win over England, with his late overhead kick counting as one of the sport's greatest goals.
"We can stop him," Portuguese center-back Bruno Alves said, "but it means stopping the whole Sweden team because if he doesn't get the ball he can't do much."
Others to watch
Nani has spent most of his international career in Ronaldo's shadow.
The Manchester United winger has struggled to make his mark over the past year, being sidelined by injuries that kept him out of four Portugal matches. He didn't find the net for 16 months up to October's qualifier against Luxembourg.
With 14 goals in 70 appearances for Portugal, Nani is keen to claim his place in the limelight. "It's all about having the right attitude," he said.
While the Portuguese focus their attention on Ibrahimovic, they face a big obstacle at the other end of the pitch where goalkeeper Andreas Isaksson is one of Sweden's standout players.
The 32-year-old is Sweden's bulwark, often saving the day when the sometimes brittle Swedish defense cracks. Isaksson produced some spectacular saves in Sweden's qualifiers against Austria and Ireland and memorably saved a stunning bicycle kick by Lionel Messi last February.
The Portuguese commonly play better against big-name teams than less famous ones. Their qualifying campaign was spoiled by home and away draws against Israel and a home draw against Northern Ireland.
Inconsistency has dogged Portugal, which has won just eight of its 16 qualifiers and friendly games since the 2012 European Championship finals.
This is the third time in a row Portugal has fallen short of automatic qualification for a major international tournament. It also went through the playoffs to reach the 2010 World Cup and Euro 2012.
Despite having Ronaldo on its team, it has struggled to make its superiority tell on the scoresheet.
"Even when we've played well we've lacked something vital — effectiveness in front of goal," coach Paulo Bento said.
Portugal's joint second-top scorer in qualifying was central defender Bruno Alves, whose four goals matched those by Ronaldo. Helder Postiga was top with six.
While playing unevenly and sometimes coming up short in defense, Sweden showed an impressive fighting spirit in its qualifying campaign.
Most remarkably, the team rallied from four goals down to draw 4-4 with Germany.
It also turned around a game against Austria, fighting back from a goal down to win 2-1, and did the same against Ireland for a 2-1 victory.
That record isn't lost on Portugal coach Bento.
"Sweden is a team that never gives up," he said. "We'll have to be totally concentrated."
Portugal is ranked 14th in world by FIFA. Sweden is at 25th.
Though the Portuguese have risen to the occasion at international tournaments, reaching the semifinals of the 2006 World Cup and Euro 2012, their trophy cabinet is still bare, as is Sweden's.
Sweden has never lost in Portugal in seven visits. It also has a head-to-head advantage with six wins and three defeats against Portugal.
But the Swedes haven't beaten Portugal since 1984, and their last three meetings ended in draws.
"Neither team can be said to be the favorite," Bento said.
Malin Rising contributed to this report from Stockholm.