Cristiano Ronaldo and Zlatan Ibrahimovic are not the world’s favourite footballers.
Idolised in their own countries and at their clubs, they both have a manner and a reputation that has tended to set people against them. Maybe it is about personality, maybe it is down to the arrogance that comes with success, maybe it is their phenomenal wealth — Cristiano pulls in €30 million a year, according to France Football’s rich list, Ibra a modest €17m — but neither have exactly endeared themselves to the neutrals.
Until now, that is. Because the luck of the draw for the World Cup play-offs has put them head-to-head. On Friday in Lisbon and then again a week today in Stockholm, two of the best strikers in the world player will trade shot for shot and one of them will fall.
It’s a contest that would have been more suitable for a sunlit stadium in Brazil rather than two chilly autumn nights. Both players surely deserve to be in the finals. But it has made this latest international break a lot more intriguing, especially as both of them come into this context in scintillating form.
Ronaldo’s monstrous goalscoring record for Real Madrid — a goal a game over the past four seasons — is now threatening to go into overdrive. He has eight in four Champions League matches so far this term, and has just scored two more hat-tricks, in a 7-3 carnival against Sevilla and then in the 5-1 win against Real Sociedad on Saturday. That was his 19th treble in La Liga, and the 24th of his career.
Eclipsed so far in the scoring stakes by Lionel Messi, he might this season reverse the pattern as Messi faces up to six weeks out with a hamstring injury. Ronaldo was largely anonymous in the Clasico three weeks ago: now he has nine goals in his last four games.
It may have been Gareth Bale that lit the touchpaper, it may have been Sepp Blatter’s jibes.
The Bernabeu echoed to the sound of “Ronaldo Ballon d’Or” at the end of Saturday’s match and the best-selling item outside the stadium is the ‘We Hate Blatter’ scarf, which seems a little ungrateful.
Zlatan’s scoring rate has never been in Cristiano’s league — he has a mere 280 compared to Ronaldo’s 348 — but that’s partly because Serie A has tougher defences than La Liga. At Paris St-Germain he is now competing with Edinson Cavani for top billing, but his hat-trick in the 3-1 win against Nice on Saturday night confirmed he too is in the form of his life.
Two goals against Benfica last month were followed by another two against Bastia — one of them an Ibra trademark back-heeled volley. Four days later he scored four in PSG’s 5-0 destruction of Anderlecht.
Portugal’s showdown with Sweden is not just about these two phenomenal goalscorers. In reaching the play-offs the Swedes have shown a lot of resilience, even if their defence is suspect. Ibra’s scoring record at international level is in fact superior to Cristiano’s — 46 in 94 games compared to 43 in 106 — and that is largely because his Swedish team-mates seem to read his game better.
Portugal are, on paper, the stronger side, with players such as Pepe, Nani, Joao Moutinho and Miguel Veloso giving them strength as well as creativity. They also have a good contingent of home-based players. Nine of their squad play in Portugal. Just two of the 23 Swedish players are based in their own country.
The worry for the Portuguese is that they look fragile at the back, above all on their travels. They were a goal down in Luxembourg before winning 2-1. They only just salvaged a 3-3 draw in Israel thanks to a goal three minutes into added time. And in that crucial game in Belfast in September they were heading for defeat until Ronaldo produced his first hat-trick at international level.
Portugal have been in play-offs before, notably against Bosnia when they ran riot 6-2 in Lisbon after a 0-0 draw in the away leg. This time, however, they are at home first. They will need their star man to be at his best.
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