The story of the 2014 World Cup will inevitably be written without one of the best players in Europe after Cristiano Ronaldo’s Portugal and Zlatan Ibrahimovic’s Sweden do battle for a berth in Brazil next year.
Ronaldo and Ibrahimovic are both in scintillating form ahead of the two-legged qualifying play-off, but only one of their teams will end up in Brazil next year.
Both men scored hat-tricks at the weekend, Ronaldo in Real Madrid’s 5-1 rout of Real Sociedad and the Swede netting all of Paris St Germain’s goals in a 3-1 victory over Nice.
“We are talking about two world-class stars, living an excellent moment,” said Portugal winger Silvestre Varela ahead of tomorrow’s first leg at Lisbon’s Luz stadium.
Portugal captain Ronaldo tops La Liga’s best scorers’ list with 16 goals while Ibrahimovic, with eight, is one behind Ligue 1 top marksmen Radamel Falcao and Edinson Cavani.
Ronaldo, 28, and Ibrahimovic, 32, are under pressure to deliver again tomorrow, and in Tuesday’s return fixture in Stockholm, and Sweden coach Erik Hamren said his money was on his own man.
“I have Zlatan as number one, as he’s my player,” Hamren said as he gathered his squad together in Stockholm ahead of the first leg.
“But Ronaldo is a very good footballer. You can keep an eye on him for 85 minutes and then he’ll score two goals from nothing.”
The same could be said of Hamren’s captain Ibrahimovic, who picked up a seventh straight gold ball, the prize awarded to Sweden’s best player, in the Swedish capital on Monday.
Portugal coach Paulo Bento said Sweden were difficult opponents. “They are taller than us and physically strong, not just in set-pieces but also through their direct football that feeds two tall, top-quality players,” he said, referring to Ibrahimovic and Johan Elmander.
“It’s up to us to make the match suit the characteristics of our players.”
Hamren has cast Group F runners-up Portugal as the favourites and expressed surprise that Bento had said the opposite.
“They are better ranked than we are. They were in a semi-final at the last Euros, so I don’t know how he’s thinking,” Hamren said. “According to me they are big favourites.”