Portugal 1-0 Sweden – Ronaldo Proves for Advantage

Advantage, just about, Cristiano. This was some way short of the high-velocity collision of twin attacking greats the slightly fevered build-up to the match had promised. But by the end Cristiano Ronaldo had made the difference, scoring the only goal on a night that never quite shed its first- leg nerves.

Portugal remain favourites to make it to next summer’s World Cup but for now this contest between two evenly matched and at times rather pedestrian European middleweights remains too tight to call. For a start Zlatan Ibrahimovic, who spent most of his evening having a pleasant stroll around suburban Lisbon, surely cannot be this supine in Stockholm.

“We’ve got the minimum advantage but it’s better than a draw,” Ronaldo reflected. “It would be better if our lead was bigger. We have a big battle in Sweden next week.”

On a clear, still night the Estádio da Luz, venue for this season’s Champions League final, was a suitably epic-scale stage for what had been billed as a clash of outsize personalities. True to form the first jeers inside this cavernous steel bowl were reserved for the sight of Ibrahimovic running out before kick-off.

Sweden’s captain came into this match in rare form, having scored 11 times in his last 10 matches for Sweden, fruits of an expertly enacted feat of footballing resuscitation by Erik Hamren, who not only helped lure the world’s favourite brooding Yugo-Swedish attacking phenomenon out of international retirement but has succeeded in reconstructing this neat, fast-pressing Sweden team around him.

In defeat Hamren was characteristically protective of his main man. “There were too many long balls to Zlatan. I hope we can play more at home than we did in this game,” he said.

“We need to be better in offence at home. But of course we have a chance. I’d hoped for a goal but now we need to win and we will do everything we can.”

If Portugal were also a little disappointing, they were at least familiarly Portugal. Paolo Bento has a team of gifted technicians, albeit one that again lacked some thrust outside its one stellar talent. Ronaldo started wide on the left of a front three, from where he roamed relentlessly in the first half, twice almost connecting with crosses from the right before João Moutinho had the first proper chance after five minutes, making a fine diagonal run on to a pass from Raul Meireles and nipping past Andreas Isaksson, only to shoot into the side netting.

Moments later Sweden threatened for the first time. Mikael Lustig, who had a fine match, often forcing Ronaldo to the fringes, crossed for Johan Elmander to poke an ungainly shot wide. Ibrahimovic, who comes to life most notably in those high-speed “flashbulb moments”, was at least fazed by Portugal’s command of possession. However, it was his lovely ghosting dummy after 20 minutes that gave Sebastian Larsson a chance to open the scoring but his shot was palmed away by Rui Patricio.

After which more cautious rhythms began to assert themselves, with Portugal playing patiently around the halfway line. Once or twice Ronaldo called for the ball having found space in the centre-forward position but he had to turn and wait while his three-man midfield stitched its sideways patterns. At times Portugal can frustrate even their captain. Sweden, with Alexander Kacaniklic lively on the left, looked the happier team at half-time.

But they were poor after the break, continuing in a rigid 4-4-2 with Ibrahimovic roaming ahead of Elmander but failing to hold on to the ball as Isaksson repeatedly kicked it long for the world’s most brilliantly gifted centre-forward to battle Heskey-style with the centre-backs. Portugal, for their part, should have scored almost immediately, Helder Postiga failing to bundle the ball into the net after a mêlée caused by a spectacular air-hack by Martin Olsson.

With 10 minutes of the half gone the first concerted whistles could be heard as Isaksson lingered over a free-kick but really there was no need to time-waste. Nobody out there looked in much of a hurry. With the first Mexican wave brewing, Portugal finally began to find some incision as Ronaldo linked well with Moutinho, a neat and purposeful presence throughout, to put João Pereira in on the right. But his cut-back was hacked clear by the telescopic leg of Mikael Antonsson.

After which this collision of attacking greats looked for a long time like congealing into a contest dominated by a dogged supporting cast. Ronaldo’s most notable contribution of the middle period was his successful attempt to throw a stray paper aeroplane back into the crowd (low arm, perfect technique), alongside a suggestion of a sneaky headbutt on the tenacious Lustig as the pair tangled.

And so it remained right up until the moment he scored the winning goal in the 82nd minute.

It was typical Ronaldo – typical of a player who is nothing if not relentless and typical of his night which featured at least half a dozen of his trademark surging leaps in the six-yard box. Finally the ball was crossed with some accuracy, Miguel Veloso finding Ronaldo in front of goal and ahead of his marker; his low header was unanswerably powerful. As the Estádio da Luz erupted, he might even have had another moments later, this time heading against the bar.

“We knew it would be close,” Bento said. “We’ve now got to go and win in Sweden. We won’t be playing defensively there.”

Ronaldo’s supreme incision had made the difference but the tie remains finely balanced. At the end Ronaldo was happy to talk to local media, although coyly refused to confirm or deny talk that he might refuse to turn up to the imminent Fifa Ballon d’Or ceremony. Ibrahimovic, by contrast, stormed through the stadium mixed zone with a face like thunder. Sweden and their star striker will not be so meek in Stockholm.

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