Portugal 1, Sweden 0: Cristiano Ronaldo wins battle of titans (that wasn’t)

1 Comment

It was the clash of global titans that wasn’t, with both Portugal’s Cristiano Ronaldo and Sweden’s Zlatan Ibrahimovic held quiet for much of today’s match in Lisbon. Yet after an often tenacious, largely frustrating day, Ronaldo had the last and only laugh, his 82nd minute header giving Portugal a 1-0 lead after leg one of the teams’ World Cup 2014 qualifying playoff.

The two teams will meet again on Tuesday in Sweden, their playoffs’ second leg set to determine which nation claims one of Europe’s final four spots at Brazil 2014. The Swedes need only overturn a one-goal deficit to return to a tournament they missed in 2010, yet if Portugal scores in Solna, the Selecçao will hold an away goals tiebreaker that could prove crucial to qualifying for a fourth straight World Cup.

Coming into the match, all attention had been focused on the battle between Ronaldo and Ibrahimovic, perhaps leaving many shocked when 44 other players deigned to show up in Lisbon. Though many may have thought a game of one-on-one was schedule, 20 other starters were picked to join to two icons, forcing narratives to give way to an actual game of soccer. With a World Cup spot was on the line, its remarkable the actual teams didn’t get more coverage ahead of today’s match.

Either predictably (or, paradoxically, depending on your level of cynicism), the match never came close to matching the mano a mano, battle of the titans hype it generated before kickoff. Instead, a home team pressing to make the most of their home leg were almost contained by a well-organized, sometimes dangerous visitor, one who can take comfort in having kept the match within reach after leg one. Though Sweden never found the away goal they threatened to take in the first half, they leave Portugal was a manageable deficit, their adversary’s 1-0 home win akin to holding serve.

Portugal were the aggressors over the first 45 minutes, even if Sweden would end up with the first half’s best chances. The Seleccao’s control of possession only produced one shot on goal – a weak header from Helder Postiga shortly before halftime. Sweden, on the other hand, saw strong play down their flanks produce close calls from Ibrahimovic, Sebastian Larsson, and Kim Källström. The hosts’ best chance was a Joãõ Moutinho shot in the fourth minute that couldn’t manage a sharp angle into a vacated goal.

The second half started with another early chance for Portugal, though a chip over the Swedish defense saw another empty goal missed when Postiga’s shot was inadvertently blocked by Pepe. The Portuguese defender had come forward to knock down a ball vaulted over the Swedish defense, with Pepe heading down to the right of goal. Swedish goalkeeper Andreas Isaksson tried to pounce on the bouncing ball only to see Postiga poke it out of his reach. The Portugal striker then saw a hurried shot toward the open goal only hit his teammate, who was standing near the right post.

source: Getty Images
Zlatan Ibrahimovic (left) was held to one shot on target as Portugal held 68 percent of the ball in Friday’s first leg. (Photo: Mike Hewitt/Getty Images.)

It was the beginning of a one-sided half, the early close call potentially convincing Sweden to hold out earlier than they may have liked. For the next half hour, Erik Hamrén’s team stay deep and compact, forcing Portugal to do something special to beat them.

That moment came in the 82nd minute, with Miguel Veloso’s run out of central midfield and beating Larsson to put in a far post cross. That’s where Ronaldo out-muscled left back Martin Olsson, giving Portugal the lead they needed ahead of Tuesday’s leg in Sweden.

Despite Ronaldo’s winner, the match was less about two titans than it was two teams. Portugal’s desire to leverage their home leg was evident from the opening moments, even if determined play from their visitors nearly keeping them off the scoreboard. And while Zlatan Ibrahimovic was influential in two of Sweden’s first half close calls, he was left out of the game by a team that only held 32 percent of the ball.

Perhaps leg two can be the showdown so many people want. More likely, it will be a battle between two teams, one of whom will miss next year’s World Cup.

Lineups

Portugal: Rui Patricio; João Pereira, Pepe, Bruno Alves, Fabio Coentrão; Raul Meireles, Miguel Veloso, João Moutinho; Nani, Héldeer Postiga, Cristiano Ronaldo

Sweden: Andreas Isaksson; Mikael Lustig, Per Nilsson, Mikael Antonsson, Martin Olsson; Sebastian Larsson, Rasmus Elm, Kim Källström, Alexander Kacaniklic; Johan Elmander, Zlatan Ibrahimovic

What’s next for Julian Green, and what’s gone wrong?

Photo by Patrick Smith/Getty Images
Leave a comment

Julian Green will have a new team again soon, in all likelihood.

A Stuttgart publication says Green is on the transfer market this month, just eight months after moving from Bayern Munich to the then-2.Bundesliga side for less than $500,000.

Now 22, Green is three and a half years removed from Jurgen Klinsmann’s long campaign to get him into a USMNT shirt. It’s been a little less time since he scored in extra time against Belgium in the World Cup, but also less than a year since he scored goals in consecutive USMNT matches. That shouldn’t be overlooked.

[ MORE: Man City 1-1 Everton | 3 things ]

Green scored one goal in 10 appearances for Stuttgart, who was promoted to the Bundesliga at the end of last season. He fell out of favor there, but was far from poor. Green completed 87 percent of his passes and averaged 1.3 dribbles per game (only four teammates had more, though 10 matches is a smaller sample size).

Before that, he spent parts of three seasons with Bayern Munich and made just four appearances, taking a loan to Hamburg in 2014-15 that saw him banished to Hamburg II after just five appearances.

What gives? Whether attitude or skill, Green has a lot of work to do to get back to a level where he’s a reasonable USMNT call-up (Green has a respectable three goals in eight call-ups, netting against Cuba and New Zealand in Oct. 2016). Still, it’s far from over for Green at 22.

There are legit questions here, as the list of not high-profile players Bayern Munich has used in its senior team at a young age and blossomed elsewhere isn’t necessarily impressive (at least relatively speaking). Nils Petersen, Thomas Kraft, and Sandro Wagner are exceptions to the rule. Better put: Bayern has a really good idea what it’s doing when it lets young players walk, and it begs discussion on the best path for Green.

It seems likely he could get a move to another 2.Bundesliga club, and there’s an outside shot he could get a look in the top flight. It would be interesting to know where the interest lies abroad. Would it be hard to acquire a work permit for France or Spain (England seems a hard sell)? Could a move to a free-flowing Eredivisie club work?

Obviously Major League Soccer clubs would welcome his talent and it’s difficult to imagine he wouldn’t be a useful piece in the United States’ top tier, even if on a short-term move as he looks to regain confidence. Would Green see it as below him?

Arsenal’s Wilshere sent-off after brawling in U-23 match vs. Man City

Photo by James Chance/Getty Images
Leave a comment

Arsenal midfielder Jack Wilshere isn’t standing around waiting for his next team, he’s fighting.

Period.

Wilshere got into with several members of Manchester City’s U-23 side in a match on Monday, with the English midfielder taking exception to a hockey-style hip check from City’s Matthew Smith.

[ MORE: Man City 1-1 Everton | 3 things ]

Shoving the 17-year-old Smith, Wilshere saw the City man take a tumble and stay prone. Still riled up, Wilshere tangled with City’s Tyreke Wilson.

Wilshere and Wilson were sent off.

Given his injury history, we’re not surprised Wilshere took exception to a hard and needless foul in a U-23 match.

The Arsenal man has been linked with moves to Newcastle, West Ham, AC Milan, and Sampdoria, but Arsene Wenger wants to keep Wilshere at the Emirates Stadium.

Report: PSG to dodge FFP by signing Mbappe on loan, sending Moura to Monaco

Photo by Carlos Rodrigues/Getty Images
Leave a comment

Paris Saint-Germain’s fight to win a UEFA Champions League will receive a major boost from its main Ligue 1 rivals.

Reigning champions AS Monaco have been frustrated by phenomenal and combative forward Kylian Mbappe seeking a move to join Neymar at PSG. Mbappe was reportedly kicked out of Monaco training this week.

That move is very difficult for PSG to pull off thanks to Financial Fair Play; Les Parisiens spent more than $260 million to sign Neymar from Barcelona.

[ MORE: Man City 1-1 Everton | 3 things ]

The way around it? Sky Sports says Monaco will reportedly loan Mbappe to PSG with an agreement to sell the 18-year-old striker permanently after this season. PSG midfielder Lucas Moura would go the other way for this season.

If that rings a bit hollow to those who’d like to see FFP work against massive clubs stockpiling talent, it should; This is hardly any different from spending all the money in one window when considering that Mbappe would join Neymar and Edinson Cavani effective this season.

Incredibly, Sky also has the notion that PSG will bring Fabinho to the Parc des Princes (Yes, from Monaco).

If Mbappe ends up in Paris — forget Fabinho for a second — PSG would be favored to get past its UCL quarterfinals blockade (Les Parisiens were eliminated in the Round of 16 last season by Barcelona after four-straight quarterfinal ousters).

UEFA Champions League playoffs: Differing levels of comfort

AP Photo/Michael Probst
Leave a comment

Only one of 20 playoff-contending clubs has a strong foot in the UEFA Champions League group stage with 10 second legs set for this week.

That’s Scottish champions Celtic, who took a 5-0 lead for manager Brendan Rodgers last week at Celtic Park and heads to the capital of Kazakhstan for a Tuesday date with Astana.

[ MORE: Man City 1-1 Everton | 3 things ]

As for the rest, there are varying levels of comfort. Napoli leads Nice 2-0 and didn’t concede an away goal to the French side, so the Serie A side has to feel pretty good. Liverpool edged Hoffenheim 2-1 in Germany and brings two goals home to Anfield. That, too, is confident footing.

Steaua Bucharest and Sporting CP are the only sides level, scoreless after a match in Portugal.

But Olympiacos is in Croatia and a goal away from being on the wrong foot after a 2-1 win at home to Rijeka, and Hapoel Be’er Sheva has the same situation in Slovenia against Maribor.

At risk? Three high-profile away trips and the same number of group stage home paydays. The losers drop into the Europa League group stage.

Tuesday
All matches at 2:45 p.m. ET unless noted

Astana vs. Celtic (Celtic leads 5-0) — 11:30 a.m. ET
Rijeka vs. Olympiacos (Olympiacos leads 2-1)
Nice vs. Napoli (Napoli leads 2-0)
Sevilla vs. Istanbul Basaksehir (Sevilla leads 2-1)
Maribor vs. Hapoel Be’er Sheva (Hapoel leads 2-1)

Wednesday
All matches at 2:45 p.m. ET

Copenhagen vs. Qarabag (Qarabag leads 1-0)
CSKA Moscow vs. Young Boys (CSKA leads 1-0)
Slavia Prague vs. Apoel Nicosia (Apoel leads 2-0)
Liverpool vs. Hoffenheim (Liverpool leads 2-1)
Steaua Bucharest vs. Sporting CP (First leg 0-0)