It's hard to imagine that either Cristiano Ronaldo or Zlatan Ibrahimovic won't be in this year's World Cup, but those are the stakes when Portgual hosts Sweden in the first leg of their play-in series on Friday afternoon.
Portugal was forced into the playoff after finishing second in Group F, just one point behind Russia, while Sweden finished second in Group C, a healthy eight points behind Germany. The Portuguese will be favored in the series, but with Ibrahimovic in excellent form at the moment, the Swedes won't go down with a fight.
Let's break this matchup down.
When: Friday, November 15, at at 2:45 p.m. ET, 7:45 p.m. GMT
Where: Estadio da Luz, Lisbon, Portugal
Watch: ESPN Deportes; WatchESPN
Give Ibrahimovic this—he hasn't been shy about believing Sweden deserve a place in Brazil more than Portugal (via Ian Holyman of ESPN):
We're in the playoffs and we've done really well up to now. Portugal, with their team and individuals, are naturally favorites.
But we finished second in our group behind Germany, the best team in Europe. They finished second in a group they should have won. I think we deserve more to go to Brazil.
As a national team, they are stronger. But if we manage to limit our mistakes, we can do it. It'll be difficult, but that's normal. It should be difficult to qualify for the World Cup.
Ibrahimovic has been on an absolute tear this year, with 22 goals in 23 games for club (Paris Saint-Germain) and country, so he's allowed to talk a bit if he wants.
There was some concern that Ronaldo may not be fit after missing a training session on Tuesday, but according to John Edwards of the Daily Mail, he'll be good to go for Friday's game.
There will be 22 other players involved in this game, of course, much as it might feel like a battle between stars.
Can Pepe and Bruno Alves keep Ibra in check? Can Joao Moutinho boss the midfield? Which Nani will show up—if he plays at all—the brilliant one or the one who seems lost in his own world? Can any Swedish players step up to dispel the notion that they are "Ibrahimovic plus 10?"
Any time two teams with superstars face one another, the best way to project a winner is to imagine the game being played out without either star in the game. If you were to do that here, it's clear Portgual would still be favored.
Yes, they would struggle to get goals, but this is a team with a rugged defense and the ability to control the midfield through Moutinho and Raul Meireles. Add in the fact that Ronaldo's role on the team allows him to find the game more easily than Ibra can, and Portugal fairly comes into this game as the favorites.
Expect them to hold their ground at home. Portugal wins, 2-1.
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