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

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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

Is NYCFC showing Mix Diskerud the door? (Photo)

LOS ANGELES, CA - FEBRUARY 01:  Mikkel 'Mix' Diskerud #8 of the USA looks on during the singing of the national anthem prior to their international friendly match against the Korea Republic at StubHub Center on February 1, 2014 in Los Angeles, California. The USA defeated the Korea Republic 2-0.  (Photo by Victor Decolongon/Getty Images)
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Since arriving on the New York City scene two years ago it’s fair to summarize Mix Diskerud’s tenure with New York City FC as a disappointment.

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While the expectations of a quick transition from life in Europe to MLS were surely massive, the 26-year-old midfielder has failed to live up to the billing of not only being one of the NYCFC’s highest-paid players but also as a potential U.S. Men’s National Team candidate.

Diskerud saw his playing time dwindle down from 23 starts in 2015 to nine this past season under new manager Patrick Vieira, and it doesn’t appear that the Norwegian-American will see an influx of opportunities during the upcoming 2017 season.

Rumors have surfaced throughout the offseason about NYCFC potentially buying out Diskerud’s contract, however, the midfielder’s cryptic post to social media on Sunday afternoon suggests that he may not be in New York for much longer.

Somebody told me I'm not part of a plan and if he was I – he'd run like the others ran 'cause the budget is tight and binding contracts might be broken, to improve 5-6 positions – in exchange for only one man. – He went on to say; "the message is clear – unless you're clueless – 'cause you've lived it all'year since the budget is tight and binding contracts might not need to be broken if…. you crack, kneel or leave the hemisphere" – Who could tell so straight and clearly tales of destiny I fight sincerely when mental games are attempting aims to make me rage severely? – On and on the conversation went about money spent and special rules and mgt's tools and something about allocation being different cent – I wish I had right there – my pad 'cause then my favorite line fused by Robin Williams spine would play dead poets – real bad

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It has been suggested that Diskerud would possibly consider a return to Europe in the event that his contract was in fact bought out, however, the difference in salaries would likely be drastic.

According to figures released by the MLS Players’ Union, Diskerud made $761,250 in 2016, which was the fourth-highest salary on NYCFC books behind only David Villa, Frank Lampard and Andrea Pirlo, each of whom were classified as Designated Players.

Report: Aguero seeking Real Madrid move at season’s end

MANCHESTER, ENGLAND - JANUARY 21:  Sergio Aguero of manchester City in action during the Premier League match between Manchester City and Tottenham Hotspur at Etihad Stadium on January 21, 2017 in Manchester, England.  (Photo by Clive Mason/Getty Images)
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Gabriel Jesus was a revelation for Manchester City before suffering an injury, but even with a spot in the lineup for the time being Sergio Aguero may not be coming back to Manchester City next season.

[ MORE: Lucky Man United, Mourinho begin trophy haul ]

According to the Sun, Spanish giants Real Madrid are eyeing up a move for Aguero in the hopes that the Argentine striker will join the club at the conclusion of the Premier League season.

Prior to joining City back in 2011, Aguero played five seasons in La Liga with Atletico Madrid, where he scored 101 goals in all competitions for the Rojiblancos.

While Aguero is likely to hold his starting spot for some time due to Jesus’ injured metatarsal, manager Pep Guardiola had heavily favored the young forward over Aguero since officially joining the club in January.

U.S. U-20s paired with Mexico, El Salvador in CONCACAF knockout round

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Tab Ramos’ side completed their first task, but now the U.S. Under-20 national team has its next challenge lying in front of them.

[ MORE: Whitecaps acquire Brek Shea from Orlando City in trade ]

The U.S. U-20s finished second in Group B at the CONCACAF U-20 Championship after winning two of its three group stage matches.

Now, Mexico and El Salvador await the U-20s in the classification stage with a spot at May’s Under-20 World Cup in South Korea on the line.

During the classification round there will be two groups of three teams, with the top two teams advancing to the World Cup. Each group winner will meet in the CONCACAF Championship final.

Classification stage schedule

Group D

Feb. 27 — U.S. U-20s vs. Mexico

Mar. 1 — Mexico vs. El Salvador

Mar. 3 — U.S. U-20s vs. El Salvador

Group E

Feb. 27 — Panama vs. Honduras

Mar. 1 — Honduras vs. Costa Rica

Mar. 3 — Panama vs. Costa Rica

Claude Puel calls for video replay after Gabbiadini goal called off

LONDON, ENGLAND - FEBRUARY 26:  Manolo Gabbiadini of Southampton takes on Eric Bailly of Manchester United during the EFL Cup Final match between Manchester United and Southampton at Wembley Stadium on February 26, 2017 in London, England.  (Photo by Michael Steele/Getty Images)
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Manolo Gabbiadini performed brilliantly in Sunday’s EFL Cup final, but was the Southampton striker unfairly gipped of a hat-trick?

[ MORE: Lucky Man United, Mourinho begin trophy haul ]

Saints manager Claude Puel certainly believes so.

[ MORE: Three things from Man United’s win vs. Southampton ]

While the back-and-forth final between Southampton and Manchester United presented a tremendous matchup, the Saints had every right to be furious with the officiating in the early going after Gabbiadini’s 11th minute finish was called off for offsides.

“I would like, of course, video in the future for these situations,” said Puel. “It’s very hard when we see this game to lose. It was cruel.”

Gabbiadini went on to score a pair of goals at the tail end of the first half and early in the second stanza, but Puel was pleased with his side’s resilience after going down 2-0 inside the opening 38 minutes.

“We kept the good attitude and spirit to stay in the game after going 2-0 down,” said the Southampton boss. “We played since the beginning of the season every two or three days. We played to a strong and fantastic level. It’s important now to continue this work, to put away this disappointment and come back in the Premier League with this strength and this quality.”

Video replay has been a common discussion for some time now, but more leagues are beginning to examine the possibility. FIFA is prepared to introduce new experimental trials over the coming months and could present a form of replay at next summer’s World Cup in Russia.