Ronaldo topples Zlatan: Real Madrid star’s hat trick sends Portugal past Sweden, into the 2014 World Cup

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[youtube http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=aj2cTazTgV8]

It was the type of shootout you’d see on a basketball course, not a soccer field: Two players, one-on-one, their teammates fading into insignificance as alpha tried to one-up alpha. You saw it in Zlatan Ibrahimovic’s determination, his second half brace temporarily leaving Sweden one goal away from the World Cup. and you saw it in Cristiano Ronaldo’s elation, the Real Madrid star’s stern “right here” declarations celebrating his tie-sealing goal.

For as tedious as the pre-match hype was — everybody trying to portray Portugal against Sweden as Cristiano Ronaldo versus Zlatan Ibrahimovic — that’s exactly what we got. It too three halves to surface, but by the end of Portugal and Sweden’s playoff, it was all about the two icons, stars trying to eclipse each other in front of a full house in Solna. After two legs and 180 minutes, two of the world’s top three players had combined for six goals.

But thanks to a Swedish defense that was beaten badly three times, four of those goals went to Ronaldo, whose Tuesday hat trick sent his hosts crashing. Despite a second half brace from Ibrahimovic, Sweden will miss their second straight World Cup, today’s 3-2 loss allowing Portugal to advance to Brazil 2014 (4-2, aggregate).

Portugal joined the day’s other six qualifiers to bring the World Cup field to 30, with France eliminating Ukraine shortly after the final whistle in Sweden. Ghana and Algeria won their African qualifying playoffs earlier today, while Greece and Croatia defeated Romania and Iceland in Europe.

[MORE: Historic comeback sees France into World Cup 2014, Ukraine denied place in Brazil]

[MORE: Europe World Cup playoff roundup: Greece, Croatia complete UEFA’s field for Brazil 2014]

[MORE: Ghana finish off Egypt to qualify for World Cup 2014 in Brazil; what now for Bob Bradley?]

Over the next two days, the final two World Cup 2014 spots will be decided. Uruguay carries a 5-0 lead over Jordan into the teams’ second leg in Montevideo (Wednesday), while Mexico is likely to advance past New Zealand on Tuesday night, having earned a 5-1 lead last week in Mexico City.

From the early moments today in at Friends Arena, it was clear that Ronaldo’s late goal in Lisbon would allow Portugal to play from their more comfortable, counterattacking posture. Conceding Sweden the ball and electing to stay organized rather than pursue, the Seleccao were able to rely on their transition to dominate the first half. Though Sweden held 56 percent of the ball, they were outshot 9-3 in the first half, a 40th minute header from Hugo Almeida nearly doubling Portugal’s 1-0 lead.

source: AP
Two goals from Zlatan Ibrahimovic pulled Sweden even with Portugal, away goals the only thing separating the sides. Portugal went on to win on aggregate, 4-2. (Photo: AP Photo.)

Five minutes into the second half, Portugal had their two-goal advantage, a counter that left Ronaldo behind the Swedish defense ending with a left-footed shot from 12 yards out into the right of goal. Beating a high defensive line, Ronaldo cut across right back Martin Olsson to get onto an João Moutinho ball play through central defense. Moments later, alone on goal, the Real Madrid star’s second goal of the playoff had the visitors up two.

But in a playoff that was billed as Ronaldo versus Zlatan, it was time for Ibrahimovic to step up. In the 68th minute, a corner from Kim Källström saw the Paris Saint-Germain star out-muscle Bruno Alves at the edge of the six-yard box, his header into the left of Rui Patricio’s net cutting Portugal’s lead to one. Four minutes later, the Seleccao were left with only their tiebreaker edge, an Ibrahimovic free kick from just outside the penalty box pulling his team event.

But again, Sweden’s high line would be victimized. From the left this time, Ronaldo was left to go in alone on goal once more, sprinting past the Swedish defense at the center line for an eventual chance from the left of goal. Burying is shot in the far corner, the Portuguese captain made it 2-2 (3-2 on aggregate).

Their lessons unlearned, Sweden allowed themselves to be beaten again in two minutes later, a turnover in midfield quickly converted into an open chance when Moutinho found Ronaldo streaking across right back Mikarl Lustig. After drawing Isaksson out, Ronaldo put his right-footed shot into the top of the Swedish next, completing his hat trick.

With their 3-2 win in Solna, Portugal had navigated their third straight major tournament qualifying playoff, but after 180 minutes that produced six goals from Ronaldo and Ibrahimovic, few are likely to remember the matchup’s context. Instead, the same fascination that dominated the buildup with write the history of Portugal-Sweden. With four goals over two games, Ronaldo earned his spot in next year’s World Cup, but with two goals in five minutes of Tuesday’s second half, Ibrahimovic did his part to ensure the show delivered on its promise.

Wenger says Ozil, Sanchez want to stay at Arsenal

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Arsene Wenger has being discussing the situation regarding Alexis Sanchez and Mesut Ozil at Arsenal.

[ MORE: Sanchez to Chelsea? ]

Speaking to the media ahead of Arsenal’s clash with Manchester City on Sunday (Watch live, 11 a.m. ET on NBCSN and online via NBCSports.com) at the Emirates Stadium, Wenger is hopeful his star duo will both remain with the Gunners beyond this summer.

Both Sanchez and Ozil are contracted to Arsenal until the summer of 2018 but are yet to agree a new deal and talks will not begin until the end of the current season.

Wenger isn’t too concerned despite Sanchez being linked with plenty of the biggest clubs on the planet.

“I personally believe both of them want to stay. I hope the club will find an agreement with them,” Wenger said.

Asked about his own future, Wenger had no update about reports suggesting he was about to sign a new two-year contract extension. That was despite saying before the international break that he would reveal his decision soon.

“It’s a subject that at the moment it is not sorted completely out,” Wenger said. “I’m very clear in my mind. Do I stay two months or two years? My commitment will be exactly the same all the time. It does not influence my attitude.”

So, Wenger is standing firm and did not want to get into any details regarding his own future as his current deal runs out in the summer.

However, the fact he said it is “not sorted completely out” suggests that talks are ongoing and that would also seem to point towards Wenger staying on after 20 years in charge.

There’s no doubt that this situation rumbling on has impacted Wenger’s team in recent weeks as Arsenal crashed out of the UEFA Champions League 10-2 on aggregate to Bayern Munich and have also lost four of their last five Premier League games.

Bagging a big win this weekend against City would significantly boost Arsenal’s hopes of finishing in the top four but perhaps everyone connected with Arsenal is more eager to have Wenger’s future sorted and then everything else will slot into place.

If the 2018 World Cup started today…

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Another international break has passed, with fortunes rising and falling in most of FIFA’s confederations (Africa took a break during the break, having staged AFCON in January).

[ MORE: All World Cup qualifying news ]

Brazil joined hosts Russia as nations to have qualified for the 2018 World Cup, and 30 spots remain. Let’s take the opportunity to project the field for Russia.

In October, we took the projected qualifiers and simulated all the way down to the World Cup final. Germany beat Brazil. Let’s go again. Who will “win” it this time?


QUALIFICATION

We’ll again use actual qualification, as flawed and early as it is in some confederations, to be predict our combatants.

Asia (7 of 10 qualifiers played)
IN: Iran, South Korea, Japan, Saudi Arabia
PLAYOFF: Uzbekistan vs. Australia

PROJECTION: While Uzbekistan has been better in terms of overall form, Australia’s experience boosts it into a match-up with the USMNT.

Africa (2 of 6 qualifiers played)
IN: DR Congo, Nigeria, Ivory Coast, Burkina Faso, Egypt

CONCACAF (4 of 10 qualifiers played)
IN: Mexico, Costa Rica, Panama
PLAYOFF: United States

(AP Photo/Arnulfo Franco)

South America (14 of 18 qualifiers played)
IN: Brazil, Colombia, Uruguay, Chile
PLAYOFF: Argentina

Oceania (4 of 6 qualifiers played)
PLAYOFF: New Zealand vs. Tahiti

UEFA (5 of 10 qualifiers played)
IN: France, Switzerland, Germany, Serbia, Poland, England, Spain, Belgium, Croatia
UEFA PLAYOFFS: Sweden, Portugal, Northern Ireland, Republic of Ireland, Slovakia, Italy, Greece, Iceland

SIMULATED PLAYOFFS (random draw):
Sweden vs. Iceland — Sweden wins
Portugal vs. Republic of Ireland — Portugal wins
Northern Ireland vs. Slovakia — Slovakia wins
Italy vs. Greece — Italy wins

Intercontinental playoffs:

Australia vs. United States — USMNT wins
Argentina vs. New Zealand — Argentina wins


FIELD (FIFA Rankings)

  1. Russia (hosts, 60)
  2. Argentina (1)
  3. Brazil (2)
  4. Germany (3)
  5. Chile (4)
  6. Belgium (5)
  7. (AP Photo/Christophe Ena)

    France (6)

  8. Colombia (7)
  9. Portugal (8)
  10. Uruguay (9)
  11. Spain (10)
  12. Switzerland (11)
  13. Poland (12)
  14. England (13)
  15. Italy (15)
  16. Croatia (16)
  17. Mexico (17)
  18. Costa Rica (19)
  19. Egypt (20)
  20. Slovakia (25)
  21. USA (30)
  22. Iran (33)
  23. Burkina Faso (36)
  24.  (Photo by Richard Huggard/Gallo Images/Getty Images)

    DR Congo (38)

  25. South Korea (40)
  26. Nigeria (41)
  27. Sweden (45)
  28. Ivory Coast (47)
  29. Japan (51)
  30. Serbia (52)
  31. Panama (53)
  32. Saudi Arabia (57)

THE POTS

The 10 European qualifiers mean two will have to join Pot 2. Our random selections were… Croatia and Spain.

Pot 1 (seeds): Russia, Argentina, Brazil, Germany, Chile, Belgium, France, Colombia, Brazil

Pot 2 (CAF, CONMEBOL, UEFA): DR Congo, Nigeria, Ivory Coast, Burkina Faso, Egypt, Uruguay, Croatia, Spain

Pot 3 (AFC & CONCACAF): Iran, South Korea, Japan, Saudi Arabia, Mexico, Costa Rica, Panama, USMNT

Pot 4: (UEFA): Sweden, Slovakia, Italy, Switzerland, Serbia, Poland, England, Portugal


THE DRAW

Group A: Russia, DR Congo, Saudi Arabia, Sweden
Group B: Chile, Croatia, Mexico, Portugal
Group C: Brazil, Nigeria, Panama, Switzerland
Group D: Germany, Burkina Faso, Costa Rica, Poland
Group E: Argentina, Spain, Japan, Slovakia
Group F: France, Ivory Coast, South Korea, Italy
Group G: Belgium, Uruguay, USMNT, England
Group H: Colombia, Egypt, Iran, Serbia

So… should we play it out? We’ll try to throw in some upsets and not just go with the chalk.

Round of 16
Mexico (B2) def. Russia (A1)
Brazil (C1) def. Poland (D2)
Spain (E1) def. Italy (F2)
Belgium (G1) def. Egypt (H2)
Portugal (B1) def. DR Congo (A2)
Germany (D1) def. Nigeria (C2)
France (F1) def. Argentina (G2)
Colombia (H1) def. England (G2)

Quarterfinals
Brazil def. Mexico
Spain def. Belgium
Germany def. Portugal
France def. Colombia

Semifinals
Brazil def. Spain
France def. Germany

Final
Brazil def. France

Dempsey leads way for MLS players during Cup qualifying

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The latest round of World Cup qualifying saw a major increase in the number of players from MLS called in for their national teams.

A number of those decisions paid off for their countries, perhaps no one more than Clint Dempsey.

A few months ago, Dempsey wasn’t even in consideration for the U.S. after missing the latter half of last season because of a heart issue. But the Seattle Sounders forward scored four times in two matches as the U.S. gathered four critical points in CONCACAF World Cup qualifying.

[ WATCH: Schweinsteiger asked if Chicago can win World Cup ]

Dempsey was part of an influx of MLS players contributing during the latest round of qualifying for next year’s World Cup in Russia.

In all, MLS had 55 players called in for qualifying in CONCACAF, CONEMBOL (South America) and UEFA (Europe) competitions. Last September, the league saw 58 players called in to their national teams, but there were more countries still alive in qualification at that time. The 55 players selected this time was an increase of 16 from the last round of qualifying matches in November, and 40 of the 55 saw action during the two days of competition in the past week representing 12 countries.

In the three CONCACAF games last Friday, 29 of the 84 players to see the field were from MLS. That outpaced LigaMX, which had 17 players among the 84 used in the three matches.

Dempsey wasn’t the only MLS player coming up big for his country. Minnesota midfielder Kevin Molino had the only goal for Trinidad and Tobago in its 1-0 win over Panama. The Vancouver duo of Christian Bolanos and Kendall Waston teamed for the only goal in Costa Rica’s 1-1 draw with Honduras.

But not all went well for MLS players during qualifying.

Young Atlanta star Josef Martinez injured his left leg during the second half of Venezuela’s 2-2 draw with Peru in CONEMBOL qualifying. Martinez returned to Atlanta and an MRI revealed a left quadriceps injury that will keep the MLS leader in goals scored out for four to six weeks. Martinez had five goals in Atlanta’s first three games.

U.S. midfielder Sebastian Lletget was forced off early in the match against Honduras but not before scoring the opening goal for the Americans. Los Angeles announced Tuesday that Lletget suffered a Lisfranc injury that will require surgery and he will be sidelined for four to six months.

[ MORE: BWP a DP; Nephew called up to England U16 ]

MATCH OF THE WEEK: The club that set the bar for expansion debuts faces the newcomer looking to topple that standard.

The Seattle Sounders will host Atlanta United on Friday night. It’s the only regular-season matchup between the two sides, but there’s more than just the competition on the field.

Seattle’s expansion season of 2009 was regarded throughout the sports industry as arguably the best franchise launch ever, not just in MLS. Between ticket sales and fan engagement, Seattle’s start could not have gone better.

Atlanta might be setting a new standard. Atlanta drew more than 55,000 for its first match and more than 45,000 for its second home game, a win over Chicago. Atlanta seems to be following significant parts of Seattle’s blueprint, down to having an influential NFL owner highly involved from the start.

As for the on-field product, the validity of Atlanta’s promising start will be tested over the next month with four straight road matches.

“It’s definitely still an expansion team,” Atlanta defender Michael Parkhurst said. “We’ve got our bumps and bruises along the way. Off the field, everyone’s still trying to get sorted and situated to the new city.”

BEST OF THE REST: Toronto finally gets to come home after opening the season with three straight road games. The Reds will host Sporting KC on Friday night. The trade-off for opening the season on the road is that Toronto gets five of its next six league matches at home and was able to get five points out of those three road contests to start.

Also of note will be what kind of lineup Vancouver rolls out on Saturday night against Los Angeles. The Whitecaps play in the CONCACAF Champions League semifinals four days later.

BACK ON THE BENCH: Real Salt Lake introduced Mike Petke as its new head coach Wednesday, less than two weeks after firing Jeff Cassar. Petke was the head coach of the New York Red Bulls for two seasons, including the 2013 season when they won the Supporters’ Shield. After two years out of coaching, Petke signed on to be the head coach of the Real Monarchs, the minor-league club associated with RSL.

OFF TARGET: The other expansion debut this season by Minnesota United is on pace to set records, but not any they want to be associated with. Simply put, Minnesota can’t play defense.

Minnesota allowed at least five goals for the third time in four matches in last week’s 5-2 loss at New England. Minnesota allowed five goals to Portland and six to Atlanta and is on pace to allow more than 150 goals this season.

LAST WORD: “I’ve been very encouraged by what I’ve seen over the last 10 days. It’s going to take some time to piece that team together.” U.S. coach Bruce Arena after the latest round of World Cup qualifying.

Messi explains actions that warranted 4-match ban

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Lionel Messi is set to miss four Argentina matches for something we arguably see every week on TV.

That doesn’t make it okay, but is anyone else scratching their head at the suspension handed down to the world’s best player for verbal abuse of an official?

[ MORE: Barca defends Messi ]

Messi, 29, shouted an obscenity at the linesman in Thursday’s 1-0 win over Chile, and was both banned and served the first match of his ban on Tuesday, as Argentina was beaten 2-0 in Bolivia.

Messi explained his actions Wednesday with the following:

“My expressions were never directed to the referee, they were said to the air,” Messi told La Nacion.

That’s pretty ridiculous, yeah? But I can’t help but feel the four matches are a bit harsh. Hardly a high-level match goes by without seeing a player clearly being derisive toward an offical, and usually lipreading proves it wasn’t G-rated.

Again, I have no problem for setting a standard, as abuse of officials is unnecessary (and even those of us who are serially offenders know it).

But if confederations and leagues want to get serious about cutting it out, this can’t be a one-off suspension; End the group upbraiding of referees during games, the wild gesticulations, so on and so forth.