He is Zlatan Ibrahimovic, and he isn't going to the World Cup.
The star striker was denied a chance to put his talents on display in Brazil next summer after Sweden lost 3-2 to Portugal on Tuesday night in the second leg of their UEFA playoff for World Cup qualification. The Swedes exit after a 4-2 aggregate loss.
Instead, it was Cristiano Ronaldo's stage.
The Real Madrid winger put on a show for the ages, scoring a hat-trick in the second half to propel Portugal through to Brazil.
With a one-goal lead coming into the match, Portugal were allowed to sit back and play on the defensive a little more. Their problems on the pitch have rarely involved their defensive performance, so this played right into their hands.
Paulo Bento has his team well-drilled in the defensive third, so it's difficult for a team to break down Portugal, especially one centered around one player, as Sweden is with Zlatan Ibrahimovic.
Portugal did a great job of isolating the Paris Saint-Germain forward and denying him service up top. You can't keep the ball away from a player with Ibrahimovic's talent the entire game, but Pepe, Bruno Alves, Miguel Veloso and Co. were able to shadow Ibra and mark him out of the game, until the 68th minute.
Bento's team also broke well on the counter, which served to stifle the Swedish attack as well. Erik Hamren was afraid to get too open for fear of having Ronaldo break and bear down on goal.
Portugal had the best chances of the first half.
In the 15th minute, they had a set piece in Sweden's half. Joao Moutinho was tasked with taking the free kick, and he delivered a great ball to Alves. The Fenerbahce centre-back headed it on goal, only to have Andreas Isaksson make a sprawling save.
On a counterattack in the 38th minute, Ronaldo created some space for himself. He chipped a great cross across the box to Hugo Almeida. Almeida could only head the ball into the side netting. It was a glorious chance, wasted by the Besiktas target man.
That was the best action from what was an otherwise drab first half, which the Portuguese dominated.
Going into the second half, Hamren knew he had to take some more chances for Sweden to try to find the breakthrough. He brought on Anders Svensson for Rasmus Elm and had his team open up more in the attack.
That decision led to Sweden's first chance of the game in the 49th minute.
Ibrahimovic got some space in the box and knocked it back across goal to Sebastian Larsson. The Sunderland midfielder hit it right at Rui Patricio, who made the save and ended the Swedish threat.
Shortly thereafter, Sweden were ripped apart on the counter.
Moutinho delivered a brilliant through ball to Ronaldo, who made a great run to get free in the Swedish half. He ran on goal and slotted a shot into the bottom right corner to put Portugal up 1-0 in the 50th minute.
Zonal Marking's Michael Cox thought Ronaldo had been running well all night.
The Telegraph's Mark Ogden applauded the pass from Moutinho.
However, Sweden, and more importantly, Zlatan, would not go quietly into the night.
Ibrahimovic tied the match with a header in the 68th minute.
It was still an uphill climb for Sweden, as they would have to score twice more if they wanted to progress by virtue of the away goals rule.
So many football supporters wanted to see Ronaldo vs. Ibrahimovic, and that's exactly what they got from this point forward.
Ibrahimovic put Sweden ahead 2-1 just four minutes later. His free kick found the bottom left corner. It wasn't the greatest free kick you'll ever see, but it was impressive nonetheless.
OptaJose noted how important the striker has been to Sweden throughout the qualification process.
Not to be outdone, Ronaldo decided to end the tie with two more goals, finishing off his hat-trick. In a two-minute span, he got free on the counter twice and finally dropped the hammer on Sweden.
Portugal did a magnificent job of making the most of their counterattacks. The goals themselves were good, but the runs and passes leading up to the goals were arguably more impressive. Ronaldo did a great job of creating some space and losing his marker. In addition, Almeida and Moutinho both provided sublime passes that allowed the Madrid winger to run at goal.
The match would end 3-2, with Portugal booking their place in Brazil.
Naturally, most of the discussion centered on Ronaldo and Ibrahimovic.
Andy Murray wondered how the Ballon d'Or race might be affected.
Brandon McCarthy provided perhaps the most accurate assessment of the match.
Here's what Bento said after the match, per PortuGOAL's Tom Kundert.
Kris Voakes of Goal wrote what this performance means for Ronaldo:
It may not be Messi’s fault that the Conmebol qualification system meant Argentina’s progression to the finals was never in doubt, but the fact that Ronaldo has delivered again and again in a string of do-or-die Portugal performances says a lot about the pair’s differing fortunes in 2013. While the Barcelona genius has had a quiet spell by his massive standards, Ronaldo has turned in arguably his greatest ever year. Tuesday simply topped it all off.
If the Ballon d'Or voting is reopened as has been reported, the Ronaldo could well win the award on the strength of one night alone, so good was he against Sweden. As it is Franck Ribery remains the favourite to carry it home, but there is no doubting who the world’s most in-form player is as we approach the 200-day countdown to the World Cup finals.
In the end, it's a shame that Ibra won't be going to the World Cup, but at least he provided some magical moments on Tuesday night. But now Ronaldo has a chance to finally get his hands on the World Cup and silence whatever critics he has left.
|Alexander Kacaniklic (off '82)||C|
|Rasmus Elm (off '45)||C|
|Sebastian Larsson (off '90)||B-|
|Lineups via WhoScored.com|
|Fabio Coentrao (off '52)||C+|
|Raul Meireles (off '73)||C+|
|Hugo Almeida (off '82)||B+|
|Lineups via WhoScored.com|
Key Player Grades
Zlatan Ibrahimovic, Sweden: A-
The argument could be made that Ibrahimovic is actually underrated. When many people talk about who the best player in the world is, they often bring up Lionel Messi and Ronaldo and exclude Ibrahimovic.
On Tuesday night, Ibra demonstrated why he demands to be considered as the best in the world. He took an otherwise average Sweden side and almost erased what was a three-goal deficit in the span of 30 minutes.
Are we absolutely positive Ibrahimovic doesn't have a Spanish grandmother or possibly a Brazilian grandfather, so he could get on some other team that's already in the World Cup?
Cristiano Ronaldo, Portugal: A
What more needs to be said about Ronaldo, really?
There's no sense in arguing about where he stands in relation to Lionel Messi, Diego Maradona, Pele and Co. Just sit back and enjoy one of the greatest players you're ever going to see.
Portugal are often criticized for relying too heavily on Ronaldo. When he's playing like he did on Tuesday night, though, he can almost single-handedly win a match.
Portugal are through to the World Cup. All that's left is a batch of friendlies for Paulo Bento to figure out his best side heading into Brazil.
For Sweden, preparation for the 2016 European Championship starts now. With so much time from now until the tournament, it might be better if they start preparing for a future where Ibrahimovic isn't as much of an influence as he is now.
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