Monday 19 March 2018

Ronaldo uses his head to carve out lead for Portugal

Portugal 1 Sweden 0

Mark Ogden in Lisbon

Cristiano Ronaldo dragged Portugal to within 90 minutes of World Cup qualification with a stunning diving header to defeat Sweden moments after being booked for clashing with goalkeeper Andreas Isaksson.

Ronaldo, whose 44th international goal proved enough to settle his personal duel with Sweden captain Zlatan Ibrahimovic, had grown increasingly frustrated during an absorbing first-leg at Estadio da Luz, with the home side failing to capitalise on long periods of dominance.

The former Manchester United forward argued with referee Nicola Rizzoli and aggressively taunted defender Mikael Lustig after being booked for a spiteful challenge on Isaksson.

But just as the 28-year-old appeared to be facing a fruitless evening, he rescued his country with the 82nd-minute header, from Miguel Veloso's cross, to give Portugal a narrow advantage in next Tuesday's return leg in Stockholm.

Having been denied automatic qualification by virtue of playing in a group containing perennial qualifiers Germany, Sweden had gone into this first-leg with Ibrahimovic and coach Erik Hamren attempting to portray the Portuguese as a team that only had itself to blame for ending up in the play-offs.

Ibrahimovic insisted that Sweden deserved to qualify ahead of Portugal due to their failure to emerge from a soft group, won by Russia, while Hamren repeatedly referred to the home team's superior world ranking and how Paulo Bento's team were "big favourites" to progress.

If it was a calculated move to fire up the Portuguese and take their eye off the ball it appeared to have worked. Portugal were wired, throwing everything at Sweden in the opening stages, but Hamren's players resisted everything in the first-half.

Had Joao Moutinho done better in the fifth minute, when slick interplay between Ronaldo and Raul Meireles set him free inside the penalty area, Portugal's breathless start may have led to a rout. But Moutinho took the ball too wide when going around goalkeeper Andreas Isaksson.

From that point on, the Swedes frustrated Portugal, with Ronaldo shackled by two markers at every set-piece and the tenacious Celtic full-back Mikael Lustig irritating the Madrid forward with his dogged defending.

Ibrahimovic, meanwhile, watched from afar as Ronaldo darted all over the pitch attempting to unlock the door. The contrast in their styles was fascinating. Ronaldo probed and pushed while Ibrahimovic, marked closely by Bruno Alves and Pepe, prowled in the centre circle, waiting for glimmer of a chance.

It did not arrive in the first-half, however, with Sweden's best chances proving to be Johan Elmander's near miss from Lustig's cross and a Sebastian Larsson strike from 20 yards, following a dummy by Ibrahimovic, which was well saved by Rui Patricio.


As Ronaldo trudged off the pitch at half-time, his bowed head painted a picture of the frustrating 45 minutes he had just endured. His mood may have been influenced by his infuriating strike partners, Nani and Helder Postiga, both of whom were displaying the inconsistencies which accompanied Postiga's brief spell at Tottenham and Nani's ongoing search for form at Manchester United.

Postiga, who is now at Valencia, spurned two good chances early in the second-half as Portugal attempted to break the deadlock.

His first effort on 48 minutes was a half-chance which he volleyed high from 20 yards. But he should have scored two minutes later when he was one of three Portugal players to miss from close range from the same opportunity – Pepe and Ronaldo also wasteful, prompting Bento to replace Postiga with Hugo Almeida.

Having escaped Martin Olsson to direct Veloso's cross into the net for Portugal's opener, Ronaldo almost doubled their lead when he headed Almeida's cross against the bar on 86 minutes. Had that gone in, Sweden and Ibrahimovic would have been preparing to spend next summer at home. But at 1-0, there is still plenty of life left in this one. (© Daily Telegraph, London)

Irish Independent

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