While Friday’s highly anticipated playoff game between Portugal and Sweden was billed as a battle between Ronaldo and Ibrahimovic, it was nonetheless a game between two quality sides that each qualified for the past three World Cups. Ibrahimovic and Ronaldo are among the best players in the football world and in the absence of Messi, arguably the best two forwards in the game, but we will only see one of them in Brazil. With the greatest respect to the likes of Greece and Romania, it seems like the footballing world had been a little shortchanged by the playoff draw for the upcoming World Cup.
The football world’s obsession with Ronaldo versus Ibrahimovic derives from the growing Hollywood-esque star system and the knowledge that the 2014 World Cup will be bereft of a significant dose of stardust, whichever matinee idol misses out.
Paulo Bento opted for a 4-3-3 formation with Nani and Ronaldo as wider strikers and Veloso playing as the specialist defensive midfield while Erik Hamren went for the en vogue 4-4-1-1 with Ibrahimovic as the main striker. With the first leg of the playoff being in Portugal, it came as no shock that Sweden came out to defend and hoped to find the back of the net through counter-attacks.
The implementation of a defensive strategy by the Swedish head coach didn’t come without a cost. Sweden defended deep which limited Ibra & Co’s options when they regained possession. Let’s look at how Hamren’s defensive strategy caused them to proceed through long balls that often found no man at the other end.
Game Situation – 13:48: Ibra delivers a long ball to no man’s land
Facing pressure from Portuguese midfielders, Ibra is forced to cut toward Sweden’s right side. Meanwhile, Elmander starts a run from Sweden’s half into Portuguese territory.
Pepe spots the movement and drops back while Bruno Alves closes on Elmander taking away the easy pass. With limited options and growing pressure, Ibra delivers a long ball to no man’s land, intended for Elmander that is easily recovered by Bruno Alves.
This type of play happened all too often for Sweden as they lack the support to counter attack, leaving Ibra and Elmander to chase down lost causes. Sweden retreated to form two defensive layers every time Portugal had the ball and was often out of sync and disorganized on the counter as showcased by this Kacaniklic’s break down Portugal’s left flank.
Game Situation – 15:00: Kacaniklic breaks from Portugal’s right side
After a good turn of pace to escape his man, Kacaniklic looks up but sees his teammates still outside the peanlty area. He tries to buy some time but runs out of real estate due to the pressure from the Portuguese defense and the end line.
On this example, the lack of speed, an essential ingredient in counter attacking, was missing and with Swedish midfielders playing deep into their zone, Kacaniklic had no options and was dispossessed. Such a pattern continued in the second half and Sweden’s efforts to create scoring opportunities were characterized by the same disorganization and lack of synchronization.
Game Situation – 69:00: Sweden fails yet again to counter attack
Elmander recovers the ball and delivers a pass to Ibra following a Nani cross attempt. Ibra dribbles around, expecting his teammates to make runs in order to create space and destabilize the defense, but Kacaniklic and Elmander are running aimlessly which allows the Portuguese players to drop back and regroup.
Ibra then delivers a pass to Kallstrom who later tries to connect with him through a long cross that is easily grabbed by Rui Patricio.
A somewhat shaky Portugal defense were hardly put under pressure as Sweden didn’t show enough attacking ambition. As mentioned above, the Swedes lacked the speed and instinct on the counter attacks and weren’t able to capitalize on the opportunities when Portugal was caught out of position.
Talk from the Swedish camp suggested that a single-goal deficit would be acceptable to take back to Stockholm and they have it, though 2-1 would have been far preferable to 1-0. That being said, Sweden could be disappointed that they weren’t able to take advantage of the multiple counter attacking opportunities, especially if they can’t keep a clean sheet at home.
The main issue with Sweden’s alignment was the lack of opportunities for their star striker. Not once did Ibrahimovic get the chance to fire in a missile-like long shot, get a clear headed chance or begin one of his monster dribbles into enemy territory. This was partly due to the presence of Pepe and Alves but the real issue was Sweden’s four man midfield being outplayed by Meireles, Veloso, and Coutinho.
Zlatan Ibrahimovic’s failure to threaten Portugal during Friday’s World Cup play-off was so complete that the Sweden forward failed to even set foot in the opposition penalty area in Lisbon. Sweden needs to see far more of the ball than they did on Friday if they want to create enough chances for their star player and punch their ticket for Brazil. And so, the Swedish midfielders, especially Kallstrom, must limit the space around Moutinho and disrupt his game.
The second leg in Stockholm will be a mouth watering fixture and Sweden will have to be creative without leaving too much space at the back especially against Ronaldo.