Wednesday 13 December 2017

Ibrahimovic hoping home comforts can work oracle

Portugal are 1-0 up after the first leg of the World Cup play-off against Sweden but with the return match being held at a stadium dubbed the 'Zlatan Arena' the job is by no means done.

Sweden captain Zlatan Ibrahimovic was relatively subdued in the first leg in Lisbon on Friday as a late diving header from Cristiano Ronaldo put Portugal in the driving seat.

Ibrahimovic, though, has a penchant for the spectacular at Sweden's home ground and at the age of 32 he will be desperate to take his country through to next year's finals in Brazil.

The Paris St-Germain forward has scored 10 goals in eight matches since Sweden took up residence at the Friends Arena, including a four-goal haul against England in the opening game there.

Three of those goals have come in World Cup qualifiers with two against the Faroe Islands and the other one the winner in their group game against Austria.

Coach Erik Hamren said he wanted an improved performance from his team tomorrow.

"There were too many long balls to Johan (Elmander) and Zlatan on Friday and we didn't have the energy to support the attack," said Hamren. "We've got to have more quality when we win the ball."

WEAPON

Ronaldo was also short of his best in Lisbon although he dived in among the flying boots to grab the winner.

Ibrahimovic represents Sweden's best hope and, despite coach Paulo Bento's suggestion that Portugal are not overly dependent on Ronaldo, the Real Madrid forward is by far and away their most potent weapon in attack.

The former Manchester United player, on 44 goals, is now only a hat-trick away from equalling Pauleta (47) as his country's all-time top scorer.

"What is a fact for me, not only in this match but throughout qualifying, is that we had a load of chances and lacked effectiveness in front of goal," Bento said after Friday's game.

"But good things are coming and I believe we will be better on Tuesday."

Although Portugal restricted him to one effort on goal in Lisbon, all eyes will be on Ibrahimovic at an arena where he seems to score at will.

The tall Swede is hoping the home fans can inspire his side.

"We're usually spoiled when it comes to support from the people," said Ibrahimovic. "Now it's just a case of standing behind us and supporting us so we can go in and do our best."

With the tie delicately balanced, the stage is set for a showdown in Stockholm between two of the best players in the world.

"It's going to be a complicated match, we have the minimum 1-0 advantage and we know it might not be enough but I have hope," said Ronaldo.

"We will try and score a goal there and if we do that it will make their task very difficult because they need three goals."

Elsewhere, Romania must attempt the 'extraordinary' if they are to overturn a 3-1 deficit against Greece in the second leg of their play-off in Bucharest and end a 16-year absence from the tournament.

The Greeks humbled Victor Piturca's team in Friday's first leg thanks to a double from Kostas Mitroglou and a Dimitris Salpingidis strike.

Few neutral pundits give the Romanians much hope of qualifying for next year's tournament in Brazil, with defensive lapses, particularly in set-pieces proving costly last time out.

Piturca knows his men have to switch from their usual no-risk approach to a straightforward playing style and be more efficient in front of goal if they are to score at least twice.

"If we manage to qualify, it will be extraordinary for Romanian football, and for myself," said Piturca, who has been criticised at home for been overly tactical.

Romania have not qualified for the last three World Cups and the 57-year-old coach misfired in his attempts to get them to the finals in 2006 and 2010.

"It's our last chance and we must do everything possible to play better and win by two or more goals and fulfil our dream," said West Ham United defender Razvan Rat.

First-choice 'keeper Ciprian Tatarusanu could be fit for the match at the National Arena after recovering from a back injury and would replace veteran Bogdan Lobont, who made his first appearance this season in Athens.

Piturca also hopes to have captain Vlad Chiriches back after the Tottenham Hotspur centre-back received permission to play with a face mask protecting his fractured nose.

The 23-year-old suffered the injury during his team's 1-0 Premier League loss to Newcastle United earlier in the month. However, Romania will be without suspended holding midfielders Alexandru Bourceanu and Costin Lazar.

SHARPEST

Bogdan Stancu scored in the first half at the Georgios Karaiskakis Stadium, for the first goal Greece have conceded since March 22, but home fans will want to see striker Ciprian Marica, with 24 goals in 67 internationals, at his sharpest.

"The stadium will be full and the pressure will be on the Greeks. Nothing is impossible," said Marica, who – after being Romania's sole striker in Athens – is expected to partner Marius Niculae in attack with Piturca opting for a more orthodox 4-4-2 formation.

Greece coach Fernando Santos has sounded a note of caution ahead of the match and called on his players not to lose concentration as they go in search of a place in the World Cup finals for only the third time.

"Although we are ahead in the tie we still need to go to Romania with a focused mindset as everything will be decided then; nothing is over yet," he said.

"We are at half-time in the tie so there is still plenty of work to do and we'll have to show the same appetite and concentration in the second leg so we don't throw away what we have built on in Athens.

"We must not take too many risks. Our focus will be to keep a clean sheet because if we concede an early goal it will create problems for us."

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