Sweden vs. Portugal Not Simply Ronaldo vs Ibrahimovic

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Sweden vs. Portugal Not Simply Ronaldo vs Ibrahimovic
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In a classic case of footballing hyperbole, tomorrow's World Cup play-off first leg between Sweden and Portugal has been framed as a simplistic face-off between Zlatan Ibrahimovic and Cristiano Ronaldo.

The reason for that promotional tactic is clear.

Both players have been in devastating form this season, each chalking up hat-tricks in their most recent fixtures at club level. Ronaldo's 24 goals in 17 games have ignited suggestions that this is the year he finally beats Lionel Messi to the coveted Ballon d'Or, while Ibrahimovic's 15 goals have catapulted him to the top of the best-of-the-rest list.

Clearly, Ronaldo and Ibrahimovic are the cream of the respective nation's crop and the World Cup will be an inferior prospect no matter which of the two fails to make the trip.

However, to suggest that success in the play-off hinges on the performance of the two blockbuster participants is a gross over-simplification of the realities underpinning this match and the two teams in general.

Take Ronaldo out of the Portugal squad and they would continue to field a somewhat formidable XI. Remove Ibrahimovic and Sweden fall apart completely.

With respect, Portugal's backup cast of Joao Moutinho, Nani and Raul Meireles are capable of causing more problems than their Swedish counterparts—Anders Svensson, Alexander Kacaniklic and Pontus Wernbloom.

Throughout the World Cup qualifying group stages, Ibrahimovic bagged twice as many goals (six) as Sweden's second highest scorer Johan Elmander (three). By comparison, Ronaldo managed just four goals—equal with Bruno Alves and two fewer than Helder Postiga.

A positive outcome for Portugal, then, revolves not solely around Ronaldo, but by crippling Ibrahimovic's involvement.

Gonzalo Arroyo Moreno/Getty Images

To do that, they must get good performances from their central defensive duo of Real Madrid's Pepe and the aforementioned Alves of Fenerbahce.

Both of Portugal's central defenders pack significant size and strength, able to neutralise the majority of opponents through their physical presence alone. Despite that, considering the stature of the player they're going up against, it's unlikely either one will be capable of keeping Ibrahimovic quiet for the entire 180 minutes through might and tenacity alone.

Positional awareness will serve Pepe and Alves far better against Ibrahimovic than a reliance on brute strength.

It's also possible that Miguel Veloso will be positioned even deeper than normal in his defensive midfield role in a bid to further stifle the movement and space of Sweden's 6'5" talisman through central areas. Portugal manager Paulo Bento may well feel that he can sacrifice Veloso in such a way given the likelihood that he will encourage his team to play the ball wide and in to the feet of Ronaldo and Nani.

Ibrahimovic, though, has demonstrated over his many seasons that he is an experienced and tactically savvy player—one that has come to embrace and understand those virtues of teamwork and co-operation that he shunned earlier in his career.

There's every chance that he will wander frequently into wide positions with a view to drawing out Portugal's central players and attempt to create space for others, all the while sowing the seeds of positional doubt among Pepe and co. and create individual match-up confusion.

Portugal's job will be to clog the central areas while Sweden have possession, either to stop Ibrahimovic directly or to prevent him bringing others into play.

Whatever the case, Portugese progression resides in stopping Ibrahimovic from making an impact. If they can do that they have an incredibly high chance of jetting off to Brazil next June. Conversely, Sweden must think about how best to overcome a far greater number of individually talented and highly experienced players.

Recent meetings between the two nations have been cagey affairs. The past four matches resulting in three draws and one win for Portugal, with the Iberians edging the aggregate score with five goals to four.

Their past two competitive matches with one another ended 0-0. So, whatever happens, don't expect a display of open, free-flowing footballnot least because of the fear that will rest on both sides regarding each other's key player.

Most importantly, don't expect Sweden to win by simply concentrating on Ronaldo.

Do expect Portugal to win if they can stop Ibrahimovic, though.

John Robertson is a freelance journalist, you can follow him on Twitter:@robertson_john

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