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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

Premier League Player Power Rankings – Week 14

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Here are the latest batch of Premier League Player Power Rankings, with Chelsea and Arsenal leading the way.

[ MORE: Ranking the PL superstars ]

Antonio Conte‘s Blues have won eight on the spin and there’s no surprise that seven of their players feature in our top 20. There are also three players from Arsenal as the Gunners have now gone 13 games without a defeat in the PL.

Middlesbrough and Sunderland both have multiple players included which goes hand-in-hand with their recent good form, while Liverpool, West Brom, Bournemouth and Crystal Palace are also represented.

Remember: this is a list of the top 20 performing players over the past seven days in the Premier League.

Let us know in the comments section below if you agree with the selections of the top 20 players in the Premier League right now.


  1. Alexis Sanchez (Arsenal) – Up 1
  2. Diego Costa (Chelsea) – Down 1
  3. Mesut Ozil (Arsenal) – Up 16
  4. Harry Kane (Tottenham) – New entry
  5. Eden Hazard (Chelsea) — Up 6
  6. N’Golo Kante (Chelsea) – Up 1
  7. Christian Eriksen (Tottenham) – New entry
  8. Gaston Ramirez (Middlesbrough) – Up 5
  9. Victor Moses (Chelsea) – New entry
  10.  Thibaut Courtois (Chelsea) – New entry
  11. Jordan Pickford (Sunderland) – New entry
  12. Laurent Koscielny (Arsenal) – Down 2
  13. Matt Phillips (West Brom) – New entry
  14. Cesar Azpilicueta (Chelsea) – New entry
  15.  Jermain Defoe (Sunderland) – New entry
  16. Alvaro Negredo (Middlesbrough) – Down 7
  17. Divock Origi (Liverpool) – Even
  18. Christian Benteke (Crystal Palace) – New entry
  19. Gary Cahill (Chelsea) — Down 5
  20. Ryan Fraser (Bournemouth) – New entry

VIDEO: Leicester academy product scores stunner from halfway line

LEICESTER, ENGLAND - APRIL 08:  Layton Ndukwu of Leicester City crosses the ball during the FA Youth Cup semi final, second leg match between Leicester City and Manchester City at The King Power Stadium on April 8, 2015 in Leicester, England.  (Photo by David Rogers/Getty Images)
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Take a bow, Layton Ndukwu.

Leicester City’s U23 side played Liverpool over the past weekend and video has emerged showing the English teenager scoring a sensational goal.

[ MORE: Klopp takes Liverpool on vacay ]

Ndukwu, 18, picked the ball up in his own half after latching onto a loose ball, took one touch and then sent a shot from well over half-field which caught the Liverpool goalkeeper out and went into the net.

Since David Beckham’s halfway line special back in the day, there is nothing quite like seeing a goal from that far out.

Drink it in below, while remember the name: Layton Ndukwu

David Villa wins 2016 Landon Donovan MLS MVP honors

CARSON, CA - AUGUST 23:  David Villa #7 of New York City FC scores on a penalty kick against Los Angeles Galaxy during the second half at StubHub Center August 23, 2015, in Carson, California. (Photo by Kevork Djansezian/Getty Images)
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The league has spoken…

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After a second consecutive season of brilliance in the Big Apple, New York City FC striker David Villa has been named the 2016 Landon Donovan MLS MVP.

This season, Villa notched an impressive 23 goals and four assists for NYCFC and helped the club advance to the postseason for the first time in the team’s brief history.

Since joining MLS ahead of NYCFC’s inaugural season in 2015, the Spaniard has notched 41 goals in 65 matches, including the playoffs.

Villa beat out New York Red Bulls duo Bradley Wright-Phillips and Sacha Kljestan for this season’s honors.

Paul Pogba urged to cut out the showboating at Man United

MANCHESTER, ENGLAND - SEPTEMBER 24:  Paul Pogba of Manchester United shows his appreciation for the fans after the final whistleduring the Premier League match between Manchester United and Leicester City at Old Trafford on September 24, 2016 in Manchester, England.  (Photo by Laurence Griffiths/Getty Images)
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Paul Pogba‘s opening few months at Manchester United have not gone as expected.

[ MORE: Ranking the PL superstars ]

Pogba, 23, became the most expensive player in history when he joined the Red Devils from Juventus for $113 million this summer but so far he has failed to show his best for and his United side is languishing 13 points off Premier League leaders Chelsea.

That has led to the manager of the French national team, Didier Deschamps, to offer Pogba a very public piece of advice. In a nutshell: stop showing off.

Speaking to French station RMC, Deschamps urged his midfielder for France to forget about trying to impress on a personal note and simply put the team first.

“Even when he does things well it’s not good enough,” Deschamps said. “So we can understand that it may encourage him to do things that are out of the ordinary but not necessarily helpful. He can do things that others do not, but it must also be the reality of what is good for the team. We’re talking about a young player. He is at a club where he is also used in different positions.”

Talking about different positions, Deschamps used Pogba in a much deeper role during France’s run to the EURO 2016 final in the summer and many believe his influence on games was impacted. Nevertheless, Pogba stuck to his task and dug in for France.

With United struggling and pressure already starting to pile not only on his shoulders but those of his fellow star players and manager Jose Mourinho, Pogba must sacrifice his individual flair for the team. Simply put, he must do whatever is needed to get the Red Devils back to grinding wins and challenging for a top four finish.

That all starts this Sunday as they host Tottenham Hotspur at Old Trafford (Watch live, 9:15 a.m. ET on NBCSN and online via NBCSports.com) looking to close the gap on another top four rival.

Pogba has been used in a central attacking midfield role in recent weeks and has looked a lot better than when he played in a deeper role. However, the balance between himself and other midfielders at United just isn’t quite right and that needs to change if Mourinho’s side will be successful this season. He has looked most comfortable with Ander Herrera alongside him in midfield and his link up play with Zlatan Ibrahimovic has been a rare bright spot in yet another poor season, so far, for United.

He’s not the type of player who will scored 15-20 goals from midfield (he only has two thus far in the 2016-17 PL campaign) but he can be so instrumental in dictating the tempo of the game. That’s what United need him to do. Right now.