Magic Moutinho paves the way for Ronaldo

Posted by Andy Brassell

STOCKHOLM -- Few will remember that Portugal triumphed in Sweden on a chilly November night in years to come. It will simply be known as the night that Cristiano Ronaldo bested Zlatan Ibrahimovic in front of his own adoring public in Solna's Friends Arena. There could be no doubting Ronaldo's brilliance -- or unquenchable desire -- on the night. He was whistled, booed and taunted mercilessly throughout the evening, but ended it lapping up the catcalls after his sensational hat trick.

The locals had hoped that their own superhero would save the day, with the cheer that greeted Ibrahimovic's name on the team sheet at the top of the evening dwarfing any barb spat at Ronaldo. The Sweden captain has grown significantly from the precocious starlet that emerged at Malmo into a genuine leader. He has even made leaps since arriving at Paris Saint-Germain, buoyed by his tremendous popularity in France, where his Spitting Image-style puppet dominates satirical news programme Les Guignols, cuddly toys have been produced in his image and he has even had a verb created in his honour -- zlataner, to pulverise with brilliance.

Yet for once, the reaction to Zlatan was one of consolation rather than confrontation, as the realisation that this great entertainer has played his last World Cup sunk in. Speaking to journalists after the game, Luis Figo -- travelling with the Portuguese FA's delegation -- lamented having to negotiate a return home to a disappointed Swedish wife and two daughters. "We were hoping both could go through," he smiled diplomatically, and he extended his sympathy to Sweden's greatest player and his former teammate.

"Ibra did the best he could in this game," Figo said with a shrug. "For me, he's one of the best players in the world. I know him very well from playing with him at Inter Milan, and he's a good friend."

The man himself was philosophical. "We did our best," said Ibrahimovic with a sigh, "but unfortunately we played against a better team. They were better than us."

PSG's party starter is a surprisingly sanguine analyst of the game, and so it proved again after this most emotive of roller-coaster evenings. Whereas the tie had been billed as Ibrahimovic versus Ronaldo -- and statistically speaking, that proved to be the case -- the difference in quality between the two stars' supporting actors made the difference in the end.

The inimitable Joao Moutinho, a midfield schemer of quite uncommon class, expertly crafted Ronaldo's first and third goals of the night. If his slide-rule ping from his own half to send the captain through for the first was impressive, then the second assist was sublime, drumming the ball with enough curve to skin poor Per Nilsson and leave the ball on Ronaldo's toe, from where he expertly beat Andreas Isaksson.

This will have come as no surprise to seasoned watchers of the man who is Portugal's best midfielder. In fact, the 27-year-old is one of the continent's very best, a box-to-box forager with an incredible eye for the most audacious of passes. When he rolls, so do Portugal. Moutinho will certainly join Ronaldo, Figo and Fernando Couto in topping the 100-cap mark barring serious injury.

It must torture Andre Villas-Boas to think what Moutinho could have done for his Tottenham side had the north Londoners managed to push through that deadline day deal in late summer 2012. Monaco have been the happy beneficiaries of that, with Moutinho already impressing in the Principality despite the brutal attentions of some inhabitants of rival Ligue 1 midfields.

How Ibrahimovic must have envied Ronaldo for having someone even close to his technical wavelength. The home side's talisman was continually forced to drop as far back as the centre circle to attempt to make things happen as Sweden squinted for a first-half opening. His goals, rather than being the product of team creativity or even his own moment of inspiration, came from two set pieces. Moutinho's craft allowed Ronaldo to concentrate squarely on the business of receiving the ball and heading straight to goal.

The credit should be spread around elsewhere, too. Portugal's playoff experience, having come through two-legged ties to reach both World Cup 2010 and Euro 2012 -- both, incidentally, against Bosnia-Herzegovina -- certainly came into play in Solna. Even when scrabbling around in a blind panic, as they undoubtedly were at 2-1 down, there was a survival instinct that enabled them to hit back, perhaps epitomised by Hugo Almeida's simple, but very useful, through ball on halfway that sent Ronaldo through to hit the crucial second goal.

Not all is rosy in the seleccao garden ahead of Brazil, by any means. There are, as Ronaldo pointed out after the game, "lots of things to improve on." The shoddy defending that undermined the main part of the qualifying campaign is certainly one of those. Ibrahimovic seemed almost surprised to be allowed to head in Kim Kallstrom's corner for the equaliser on the night, as Portugal slipped from security to disrepair in an instant.

Given Paulo Bento's insistence on sticking slavishly to the same first XI for 18 months or more, one would expect Portugal to be predictable, but they are in fact entirely the opposite. His picks pay no mind to fettle or form, and uneven performances are often the result. Apart from Ronaldo, Moutinho and arguably the full-back pair of Joao Pereira and Fabio Coentrao, Bento is short of consistently reliable performers.

It could well have been their undoing in Sweden. "When we scored for 2-1," Sunderland's Sebastian Larsson told ESPN FC after the game, "I had no doubt in my head that we were going to go through. We all felt it. I think they felt it, as well. They looked a bit shocked, but maybe that's where we made some mistakes, going for it with all guns blazing and maybe we should have tried to control it a bit more."

Ultimately, Sweden were brave, committed and can have few regrets. Whether Portugal will feel the same in July next year is a question that Paulo Bento and his players must focus hard on. Cristiano Ronaldo can't dig them out of a hole every time. Can he?


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