Sweden 2-3 Portugal: Ibrahimovic 2-3 Ronaldo

November 22, 2013

The starting line-ups

Cristiano Ronaldo produced an extraordinary performance to win this play-off almost single-handedly.

Erik Hamren named an unchanged starting XI from the first leg, which finished in a 1-0 Portugal victory.

Paolo Bento’s side had one change – Hugo Almeida had made the difference in the first leg as a substitute, so replaced Helder Postiga upfront

It’s difficult to remember a contest that had been promoted  so much beforehand as, essentially, an individual battle between two players. Football isn’t an individual sport, of course, but Zlatan Ibrahimovic and Cristiano Ronaldo lived up to the pre-match hype, and completely dominated their sides.Formation battle

The two sides played very different football, in very different formations. Sweden were a straight 4-4-2, almost as basic a 4-4-2 as you’re likely to see at international level, with the two forwards playing roughly the same role, and the two central midfielders close together, pushing up and closing down Portugal’s central midfield duo.

Miguel Veloso was theoretically the midfielder with most freedom, although the fact Sweden’s forwards didn’t press the Portugal centre-backs, and instead stood off in the midfield zone, meant he didn’t enjoy a great amount of time on the ball.

Sweden press in midfield

In fact, the key feature of the first half was Sweden’s pressure in midfield. They kept a high line, presumably because Almeida offers no threat in behind the defence (although Ronaldo clearly does) and were admirably compact throughout the game, meaning their rather basic 4-4-2 wasn’t exposed regularly between the lines.

But they didn’t pressure from the front – Ibrahimovic and Johan Elmander aren’t exactly tireless, hard-working forwards – and instead tried to keep the side compact by dropping towards the midfield zone.

There were two curious incidents in this respect. First, Portugal’s centre-back, Pepe, found himself on the ball with no forward passing options, but also no opposition pressure. He literally stood with the ball, not moving, for around ten seconds before eventually playing a sideways pass – this illustrated Sweden’s lack of interest in pressing high up the pitch.

The second incident also involved Pepe, who moved forward into the midfield zone, then realised he was leaving Bruno Alves exposed at the back, and therefore wanted to return to his defensive position. But every time he played a pass into the midfield zone, he immediately received a return ball back – none of the midfielders were able to turn in possession, and it took four passes before Pepe got rid of the ball.

Sweden attacks

Sweden lacked invention from the centre of the pitch, and instead spread the play wide into full-back positions. Martin Olsson started energetically, pushing back Nani into a deep position, while on the other side there were a couple of quick switches out to Mikael Lustig, who took advantage of Ronaldo’s (or Almeida’s) lack of defensive discipline by racing forward into space.

The crosses weren’t always promising, but Sweden were putting Portugal under pressure and winning set-pieces – although they were frequently wasted.

Portugal attack down the right

Towards the end of the first half, Portugal kept playing neat combinations down the right flank with Nani and Joao Pereira. That duo have a decent relationship down that wing, and because Nani starts in a much deeper position than Ronaldo, the full-back and winger are able to combine more easily.

They sent in two excellent low crosses for Ronaldo, who started on the left flank before suddenly cutting inside to meet the pull-back, his amazing acceleration leaving Lustig unable to react. These were probably the two clearest chances of the first period.

Sweden pile on the pressure

Hamren replaced Rasmus Elm with Anders Svensson at the break, and at the start of the second half Ibrahimovic dropped into deeper positions more, providing the Swedish midfield with a forward passing option and allowing his side to attack more directly. Portugal wobbled at this stage, unable to cope with the sheer force of Sweden’s attacks – and Sebastian Larsson should have equalised when presented with a fine chance.

The overall change of approach from Sweden was understandable, but perhaps in hindsight, it was rather hasty. At this stage, Sweden really needed to keep things tight at the back – if they scored a goal it meant the tie was level, but if they conceded a goal, it left them having to score three, because Portugal would have the crucial away goal. Clearly, if Larsson had prodded home there would have been no criticism of Hamren’s approach, but going all-out-attack at such an early stage was risky.

Ronaldo breaks

Particularly risky, of course, because Sweden were playing against the best counter-attacking player in the world. The more Sweden pushed forward, the more they were vulnerable at the back, and this was one of Ronaldo’s finest individual performances of the year.

His positioning throughout the game was unusual – at the start of the first half he spent time in central positions, forcing Almeida to go wide-left, and often having to get back into defensive positions when the ball was lost. Almeida didn’t do a bad job at fighting for long balls, but his game was almost entirely about making runs to distract defenders, or providing some balance when Ronaldo drifted into a different position. He was, to be frank, a permanent decoy as Ronaldo ran the show.

He scored the opener from a wonderful Joao Moutinho pass – although the move was slightly odd, because Moutinho was only in a position to play the ball because he’d been rolling around unnecessarily having been tackled. This was one of the first times Ronaldo made a run from an inside-right position, before cutting across and finishing with his left foot, showing his versatility.

Ibrahimovic fights back

Then came Ibrahimovic’s time to shine, with two goals. Again, Sweden didn’t boast great creativity and the goals came from set-plays – a header from a corner, and a powerful free-kick.

The only tactical point of note was that the free-kick was conceded by Veloso, who still isn’t an entirely convincing holding player in a three-man midfield, and would be more suited to playing in a duo. When Ibrahimovic came into his zone, he looked uncomfortable, and eventually conceded that free-kick right on the edge of the box.

The format of Portugal’s midfield was interesting – although Veloso was basically the sole holding player, he didn’t have a number ten to deal with, and was sometimes attracted higher up the pitch, especially to the right. When he vacated his position or moved towards that flank, Meireles would often drop in alongside him, so Portugal’s midfield started as ‘1-2′ but sometimes switched to ‘2-1′, with Moutinho higher up as the creator.

Sweden continue attacking but allow Ronaldo to break twice more

But Sweden needed a third goal, and continued attacking. The only significant change was Bento’s decision to bring on William Carvalho, the promising young Sporting midfielder, in place of Meireles – he sat deep alongside Veloso and helped Portugal deal with the pressure much more effectively.

But it was all about Ronaldo’s counter-attacking quality late in the game, and for long periods he may as well have been Portugal’s only attacker. He continued to vary his position, making runs both from the right and left channels, and his speed in behind the defence was quite amazing – he scored two brilliant goals on the run, and probably should have had another.

Again, Moutinho was the man providing the passes from midfield, but this, more than any other game you’re likely to see, was essentially won by one star individual.


The obvious billing for this tie was Zlatan versus Ronaldo, although you could equally bill it as ‘the side with only a striker’ versus ‘the side with everything apart from a striker’. Sweden’s gameplan was all about how to service Ibrahimovic, whereas Portugal’s gameplan was about how to attack directly without needing to rely upon Almedia, who remains useful but limited.

We learnt nothing new about these sides – Portugal’s strategy and personnel has barely changed since Euro 2012 and will continue to be very familiar at World Cup 2014, while for Sweden this could be the right time for a change of approach.

Ultimately this will be remembered as an battle between two star names – and as football coverage becomes increasingly focused upon the individual, this contest might be an interesting case study in future years.

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