PORTUGAL qualified for the World Cup after a superb hat-trick from Cristiano Ronaldo secured a 3-2 win over Sweden and a 4-2 victory on aggregate in last night's thrilling finale to their play-off.
After a hesitant first half in which the Real Madrid forward missed several scoring chances, the much-awaited contest between two of the biggest names in world football - Ronaldo and Zlatan Ibrahimovic - finally burst into life in a spectacular second half.
Ronaldo broke the deadlock, Ibrahimovic struck twice to make it 2-1 to the hosts on the night - only for Ronaldo to score two more to secure his team's place in Brazil.
"To be honest I think in both games we played better than Sweden," Ronaldo said. "I respect a lot Sweden, I think they have a fantastic team, they have experienced players, they have a good coach, but in both games we played better than them, we created more chances, we played solid.
"We have a mature team in these competitions, in (the) play-off, I think we deserved to win and we are the best team tonight."
For his part, Ibrahimovic was sporting in defeat.
"Of course I'm disappointed. I wanted to play the World Cup," he said. "We did our best. Unfortunately, we played against a better team, better than us no doubt."
Four minutes after the break, Ibrahimovic provided the pass for Sebastian Larsson's shot that was saved by Portugal's Rui Patricio. A minute later, Ronaldo opened the scoring, set up by a superb through ball by Joao Moutinho.
Ibrahimovic equalised with a header from a corner in the 68th minute. Three minutes later, Sweden won a free kick just outside the penalty area and Ibrahimovic fired home a fierce low shot to give the home team a 2-1 lead and raise a nation's hopes of qualification.
However, the home fans among the nearly 50,000 spectators didn't get to cheer for long.
As Sweden pushed forward in search of a third goal and a 3-2 lead on aggregate, its defense became vulnerable to the counter-attack.
And Ronaldo, who scored the only goal in last Friday's first leg in Lisbon made the home side pay.
Latching on to a pass by Hugo Almeida, Ronaldo raced through to equalise with a clinical finish in the 77th minute. He brought bagged his hat-trick two minutes later - this time collecting a defense-splitting pass from Joao Moutinho - and could even have added more to his tally.
Ronaldo, who described Ibrahimovic as "a fantastic player", acknowledged that "it felt complicated for a moment after they scored 2-1... we suffered a little bit."
Portugal coach Paulo Bento said he thought his team put up a good performance.
"We had to deal with some difficult periods, namely after the Swedish goals," he said. "But even in that period we had a good reaction. I think we did it as an organization as a whole but of course we cannot underestimate how important is Cristiano for us."
For Sweden coach Erik Hamren, the post-match was all about the pain of defeat.
"It just hurts right now," he said. "It is a dream, an ambition that has died, it's hurting for everyone, it's really tough. Especially when we were close."