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.


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

Why Arsenal can win the Premier League title

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LONDON — Before the 2015-16 Premier League season began, all of the momentum was behind Arsenal’s bid to win the Premier League title for the first time since 2003-04.

Eight weeks in, despite a topsy-turvy start to the season, the momentum is once again building behind Arsene Wenger‘s men as they rode a blistering start to seal a 3-0 win over fellow title contenders Manchester United on Sunday.

[ MORE: 3 things we learned ]

Many would suggest United fell at their first major hurdle this season, with Arsenal’s fluid front three of Theo Walcott, Alexis Sanchez and Mesut Ozil ripping apart their makeshift backline. But what about the Gunners, can they kick on and sustain a lengthy title challenge?

[ MORE: Brendan Rodgers fired ]

Manchester City is their biggest challenger, with the offensive power of Manuel Pellegrini‘s side making them the title favorites. However, considering how easily Arsenal brushed aside United thanks to their supreme attacking talents, Wenger’s men have supreme attackers of their own and sent out a message out to the rest of the PL. At least, that’s what striker Walcott had to say after he set up two goals and put in a dominant display.

“After the Olympiakos disappointment we started this game completely differently. We caught them on the break, we maybe eased off in the second half but the clean sheet was crucial for the whole team today,” Walcott said. “This game will send out a message to the Premier League that we are ready to have a go this season.”

So, according to Theo they are ready, but why can Arsenal win the title?


After his summer signing from Chelsea, the Czech Republic stopper has cemented himself as the undisputed No. 1 for the Gunners… no matter what Wenger says. The Arsenal manager was lambasted for leaving Cech out of Arsenal’s UEFA Champions League defeat to Olympiakos last week, as his replacement, David Ospina, made a howler to hand the Greek side a 3-2 defeat, but Cech proved his importance to Arsenal once again on Sunday. Looking past his mistakes in the opening day defeat to West Ham United, Cech has already made several stop saves this season (hence the bemusement for him being left out of the UCL games) and although Arsenal led 3-0 after 19 minutes on Sunday he was called into action at pivotal stages.

Right on half time Anthony Martial got free in the box and Cech saved at close range, gobbling up the Frenchman’s low shot. Not long into the second half he showed great bravery to dive at the feet of Bastian Schweinsteiger and he was faultless throughout as he claimed high balls and marshaled Arsenal’s backline. Cech, 33, won everything possible with Chelsea, now he could be the key cog in Arsenal’s quest for glory.


Arsenal’s success on Sunday was largely down to having a settled front three who all knew their jobs and performed them with ruthless efficiency. With Walcott through the middle, Alexis Sanchez off to the left and Mesut Ozil off to the right, the Gunners possessed the perfect amount of creativity and pace. With Olivier Giroud up top, the Gunners are sometimes too reliant on knocking high balls up to the Frenchman and hoping for the best. With the Walcott-Sanchez-Ozil trio, United couldn’t deal with their movement in behind their backline.

It may have been Sanchez and Ozil who got the goals, but Wenger reserved special praise for Walcott after the game as his non-stop running saw the England international lauded by the home fans throughout.

“I hope and I believe it can,” Wenger said when asked if the trio is the answer. “I must say, Walcott had a hugely committed performance today and a very convincing one. He didn’t score but I like to praise the strikers when they don’t score but contribute and give assists. He was involved in two goals and he showed that he can fight and commit and protect the ball as well. He is gaining aspects of his game as a center forward and is improving.”


When you look at the rest of the Premier League, the title race doesn’t seem wide-open. Yes, United, City and Arsenal have all lost two of their opening eight games of the season, while Chelsea has lost four times, but when you look at it overall, only Arsenal and City have the credentials to challenge for the title. Given City’s tendency to blow hot and cold, there may have not been a better time for the Gunners to win the title in the past 10 seasons.

Arsenal have now faced Chelsea away and Manchester United at home, while their next six PL fixtures (trips to Watford, Swansea, West Brom and Norwich, plus home games against Tottenham and Everton) give them a chance to set up a battle with City for the top spot between now and the busy festive period. Wenger agreed with Walcott and believes his side sent out a statement to the rest of the PL as they thrashed United.

“To win in a big game is always a statement and we are in it, you know. We are two points off the leaders Manchester City,” Wenger said. “I hope that result today will give us belief and ambition to fight for it [the title], yes.”

Who next? Klopp, Ancelotti main contenders to take over at Liverpool

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With Brendan Rodgers fired by Liverpool on Sunday, the first question many are asking is: who is next?

Rodgers, 42, was sacked just eight games into his fourth season in charge at Anfield, as a poor start to the current campaign, coupled with spending over $280 million on largely under-performing new players in the past two summers, has seen the Northern Irishman lose his job.

[ MORE: Rodgers fired by Liverpool ]

Despite almost leading Liverpool to their first Premier League title in 2013-14, Rodgers’ side have been on a downward spiral ever since. With the likes of Luis Suarez, Steven Gerrard and Raheem Sterling all leaving Anfield over the past 12 months, the pressure has been building on Rodgers as his new recruits haven’t been up to scratch.

[ MORE: Twitter reacts to Rodgers getting sacked ]

The former Swansea City manager is famed for creating an attractive brand of soccer, but with talk surrounding a transfer committee making plenty of decisions on signing new players, his assistant coaches being fired in the summer and growing unrest as Liverpool have failed to win any silverware during his time in charge, it proved too much for Rodgers to withstand.

Let’s take a quick look at the main contenders to take over at Anfield:

  • Jurgen Klopp – The former Borussia Dortmund manager is the overwhelming favorite to take over. His passion and ability to reignite a sleeping giant with a large fanbase (see: Dortmund) will resonate strongly with Liverpool’s owners. He won two Bundesliga titles at Dortmund with a young, exciting team and also led them to the UEFA Champions League final in 2013. The German coach speaks very good English and is currently on a self-imposed sabbatical after leaving Dortmund at the end of last season. Klopp has been waiting for a chance to manage in England for quite some time. Now, it seems to have arrived.
  • Carlo Ancelotti – He delivered the Premier League during his two seasons at Chelsea, and Ancelotti is a man with an incredible resume when it comes to winning the biggest trophies at the biggest clubs in Europe. He led AC Milan to a Serie A title and two UEFA Champions League trophies, then led Real Madrid to Champions League glory in 2014 before leaving last summer. Many believe Ancelotti is a man you bring in to manage top class players, which Liverpool is lacking at this point in time. At 56, could this job be too late in his career to undertake?
  • Frank de Boer – A long shot, the Dutch manager has done exceptionally well with a small budget and a group of young players at Ajax. He has won four Dutch titles in five years as Ajax boss. This would be way out of left field if it happens, but de Boer has the pedigree from a fine playing career and has cultivated an exciting playing style in Amsterdam.
  • Walter Mazzarri – The former Napoli manager brought plenty of success to Stadio San Paolo as he brought an attacking brand of soccer in a 3-4-3 formation and took the Serie A side to the UEFA Champions League. He didn’t fare so well at Inter Milan, but Mazzarri has a track record of working with exciting attacking players such as Hamsik, Cavani and Lavezzi.
  • Who else? – That is the biggest question and perhaps points to why the decision to fire Rodgers is baffling, if Liverpool don’t have a replacement already lined up. Current PL managers such as Garry Monk and Ronald Koeman have been mentioned, as well as Zenit St Petersbug boss Andre Villas-Boas, but the truth of the matter is, outside of Klopp and Ancelotti, there doesn’t seem to be many managers capable of taking Liverpool to the next level of challenging for silverware and getting back into the UEFA Champions League.