As the 2014 FIFA World Cup qualifiers enter their final crucial stages this week, plenty of eyes will be on one UEFA zone clash: that of Sweden against Portugal, which means that only one of two of the game's biggest stars—Zlatan Ibrahimovic and Cristiano Ronaldo—will be at the finals in Brazil next year.
For Swedish striker Zlatan, now aged 32, this is likely to be his final attempt at reaching the World Cup, or at least it certainly will be while he remains at the top of his game.
It has been many years now since Sweden have genuinely had several top players to contribute to the team's success between them, with the current crop arguably all playing a supporting-cast role to feed Ibrahimovic's ability to win matches at the top level.
As if the PSG striker wasn't already a legend for his country, four more goals will see him become Sweden's all-time highest scorer at international level, playing in both legs of the playoff will see him tied for 10th in the all-time list of appearances for his nation with 96 caps, and if Sweden progress, he will very likely make it to a century of caps at the World Cup itself.
All of that is for the future, though, and Zlatan has already had an enormous say in the most pressing of present matters: the Scandinavian side's progress to the playoff stage of the 2014 World Cup qualifiers.
Hyperbole and exaggeration aside, it's perhaps not too much of a stretch to say that Sweden would not even be at this stage without him.
As a nation, Sweden managed 19 goals in their 10 qualifying matches, with Ibrahimovic himself netting six of them—a rather impressive 32 percent—in nine appearances.
More pertinent, though, is the number of points which his strikes have earned.
Of his six qualifying goals, five were goals which directly impacted on the points that Sweden took, with four of them being match-winning goals.
In total, Zlatan's six goals were worth a total of nine points for Sweden, almost half their entire tally of 20 points throughout the campaign.
Yes, of course, somebody else would have been playing up front for Sweden if Zlatan had been absent—but would Ola Toivonen, Johan Elmander or Mathias Ranegie have been capable of such consistency, quality and individualism?
Would they have been capable of producing this?
This goal came inside of 30 seconds of the start of the game against Kazakhstan, which finished 1-0. Aside from being another game-winning contribution from the forward, it also meant Sweden went into the crucial game against Austria with a three-point advantage over their rivals, paving the way to seal second place in the group.
Earlier in the group stage, Ibrahimovic had scored a 75th-minute winner against Faroe Islands after Sweden initially trailed, scored both of Sweden's goals in a 2-0 home win over the same opposition in June of this year and, perhaps pivotally, scored his team's opening goal in the incredible 4-4 comeback against Germany in October.
Having been 4-0 down in that game, within half an hour of Ibrahimovic's goal, Sweden fought back to level the scores in injury time.
Ever the star and the big man for the biggest of occasions, his most telling strike came in the most important match.
With Sweden having trailed once more, this time against Austria, Zlatan helped turn the game around, setting up the equaliser and scoring the winning goal himself with four minutes left on the clock as Sweden won 2-1, thereby guaranteeing second place and, with it, a playoff place. Austria were the only team who could have caught Sweden by that time, but the six-point gap that Ibrahimovic's goal opened up meant that even that consideration was swept aside.
Suspension Question Mark?
It wasn't all positivity and brilliance from the PSG man, of course. Football rarely goes this way, and certainly not when dealing with one of the most egotistical, confident and technical players on the planet.
That Austria match could, perhaps should, have contained a point of contention—yet nothing appears to have been made of a late yellow card received by Ibrahimovic.
In the 93rd minute, with the game won and Austria down to 10 men, the forward picked up a yellow card—his second of the group stage, which therefore meant he faced a one-match suspension.
A viewer of a cynical mind might think this was a deliberate circumnavigation of a possible absence in the qualifiers. Since the points against Austria guaranteed second, missing the final, now meaningless group game against Germany meant the striker would not be facing the threat of suspension during the qualifying playoff itself.
And so to the coming days, which will define whether Ibra is able to head to Brazil to attempt to make a big impact on the global stage. Sweden play away in Lisbon on Friday, with the second leg to follow in Solna (Stockholm) on November 19.
Sweden will look to their enigmatic front man to be the focal point of their attack, the source of their inspiration and, more than likely, the player to get a key goal in either leg.
Portugal will do the same with Cristiano Ronaldo, of course.
While it would be too simplistic to simply state that the two legs will be a case of Ibrahimovic vs. Ronaldo, both are certainly big enough and talented enough to have the ultimate telling impact.
From Zlatan's point of view, he has everything to lose in these two games...but also everything to win.
And if his career tells us anything, it's that Ibrahimovic is most certainly a winner.
The next chapter awaits writing.
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