Ronaldo uses his head to get the better of Ibrahimovic

Posted by John Brewin

LISBON -- A key reason for Cristiano Ronaldo’s greatness is persistence. Even in moments where he looks lost, there is no question of him hiding. He had struggled all evening.

His passes were poor, his runs went down blind alleys and his shooting was wild. And yet, when his country required him, he was in the right place to earn Portugal a 1-0 victory over Sweden.

What makes him as pure a footballer as has played the game is that, beyond the tricks, he has a heading ability that the great centre-forwards of the game’s history would covet. When Miguel Veloso’s cross came in, Ronaldo flew into the type of diving header that Nat Lofthouse once patented.

Later, another header rattled the bar. Had it gone in, then Portugal would have been nailed on for Brazil. As it is, they must suffer in Stockholm first.

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Ronaldo’s goal won the game but not yet the prize. Still, he had first blood in the individual battle that has been heavily trailed all week. The fascination in Ronaldo versus Zlatan Ibrahimovic derives from football’s 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.

In truth, while the tournament would miss either leading man, it might not suffer from being bereft of either of their teams. While Ronaldo and Ibrahimovic truly transcend their countries, the supporting cast for both is hardly box office, more straight to video.

Sweden’s players mostly ply their trade with lesser concerns in northern European leagues, while Portugal’s are a host of players struggling to cement places at the continent’s biggest clubs. It felt strange to watch Nani actually playing, though a trademark dive and a series of wayward crosses provided him a positive ID.

When Ronaldo broke through as a teenager, his compadres were Rui Costa and Luis Figo. Meanwhile, Ibrahimovic played alongside Henrik Larsson and Freddie Ljungberg in his own salad days.

Now, Portugal’s striker is Helder Postiga, younger than you probably thought at 31, while Johan Elmander, last seen lumbering ineffectively for Norwich, is Zlatan’s attacking foil. Thus were both teams playing in the playoff round rather than lucrative Friday friendlies.

The Ronaldo of Portugal is no La Liga Madrid mean machine. Often on the biggest occasions, such as the two Champions League finals in which he has featured, there can be an anxiety about his play.

Tonight, the Estadio Da Luz rose as one whenever he set off running, but were often seated back down in anguish at moments like that which saw him check and inexplicably pass to Elmander. Eventually, an unshakeable self-belief and no little bravery turned his evening from stinker to stonker.

The home favourite began his evening with a backheeled through ball for Fabio Coentrao. Concerns about a foot injury were forgotten as a brass band belted out the tune that accompanies the Mancunian terrace anthem, "Viva Ronaldo." A stroll round Lisbon and a glance at the local papers would leave even the most reluctant soccer follower in no doubt as to this country’s main man.

Ibrahimovic had appeared the more charismatic leader. His easy control of a ball often bought overworked defenders precious breathing time, especially in a second half where Portugal pushed on much harder. He was booed on his every touch, a state of affairs he will be more than used to.

Still, Zlatan waited nearly 14 minutes for his first touch of note. A long ball was killed like a banana leaf falling from its tree, the pirouette was perfect, deceiving the defenders around him. The next touch was a sumptuous fade to the wing, but to nobody in a yellow shirt.

MIGUEL RIOPA/AFP/Getty ImagesIbrahimovic and Ronaldo will meet again in the second leg on Tuesday.

The main men mostly endured that type of evening. A minute later, Ronaldo had his own chance to shine, a free kick he himself had won. He began his familiar shuffle and run, but the ball rattled off the shins of the Swedish wall.

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. Their problems derived from their chances -- almost exclusively in the first half -- never falling to the right man.

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. Bruno Alves and Pepe kept him quiet.

Elmander and Ibrahimovic’s combination play gave Seb Larsson a shooting chance that was saved at the right height by Rui Patricio, while Zlatan oddly passed up a free kick that Kim Kallstrom boomed over. Elmander even got in the type of snap shot that Zlatan would not sniff at. It drifted agonisingly wide.

The quality of those first-half chances was superior to that of the hosts. Only Raul Meireles’ early slide-rule to Moutinho was worthy, and even that took the midfielder too wide to get in a proper shot on goal.

Such a pattern continued in the second half. Howls of excitement greeted any Portuguese attack, but until Ronaldo’s intervention, they were always followed by groans of disappointment.

Portugal’s problems lie in continuing struggles to finish off opponents. A failure to score more than once in a game they increasingly dominated may yet prove costly.

Still, it could have been worse. Desperation and the hope of grabbing an away goal in Sweden were beginning to take hold before Ronaldo finally made his mark. This time, they could rely on him. He had taken his time, but proved himself the right man to finally assume star billing.

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