What was advertised as a showdown involving two superstars in the world of football eventually turned into an ugly and chippy affair that featured wasted scoring opportunities and players kicking opponents. Then, with the clock ticking down, the man who may be the best (healthy) footballer on earth delivered what could, for his nation, prove to be a golden goal.
Cristiano Ronaldo found the back of the net eight minutes from time to propel Portugal to a 1-0 victory over Sweden in the first leg of the World Cup playoff. Just as important as was Ronaldo's spot on header was the fact that the hosts made it to the final whistle without conceding. The two sides will meet again in Stockholm on Tuesday, November 19 (2:30 pm ET kickoff).
Friday's contest easily could have been 1-1 inside of the opening ten minutes of play. Portugal did little despite having the bulk of the possession, and Johan Elmander was unable to turn a Sweden counterattack into anything of value. Zlatan Ibrahimovic was largely an invisible man, through no fault of his own, minus one attempt from distance that was always curling away from the target. Ronaldo wasn't much better.
A scoreless first half was followed by a second half that saw the visitors gas out as the match wore on. Ronaldo showed more and more signs of life after the hour mark, however, and it was right around the 75th minute that the Real Madrid star seemed ready to enter another gear. That he did, and at the perfect time.
Hugo Almeida played a short pass down the left wing for Miguel Veloso, who looped a cross toward the center of the penalty area. Ronaldo did well to cut in front of his marker before lunging his body downward and forward, and effort that allowed him to tuck the ball past the outstretched hand of goalkeeper Andreas Isaksson.
A near replay of that goal occurred three minutes later. This time it was Almeida who delivered a far-post cross into the mixer, and Ronaldo, as he often does, rose above the pack and won the header. His attempt beat Isaksson but not the crossbar, and there was no Portuguese player there to send a second shot toward goal.
Ibrahimovic will likely be looking to make a statement on Tuesday after being outdone on Friday. Both he and Ronaldo were credited with a single shot on target. Ronaldo's went in, and he finished the match with six other registered shots. Ibrahimovic's one on-target attempt was his lone of the match. Even more lackluster was that Ibrahimovic finished the game without recording a single touch inside the box.
Sweden now know that they have an uphill battle standing in front of them and a ticket to Brazil. They not only have to notch at least a single tally in order to have even a chance of playing in next summer's World Cup. They will have to keep a very dangerous Portugal attack off of the scoreboard, or bury a barrage of goals themselves.
No easy task.
True superstars step up on the big stage when the situation demands it. It doesn't get any bigger in the international game than the World Cup. This night belonged to Ronaldo and to Portugal, who are now that much closer to being invited to world football's biggest party.
Your move, Ibra.