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

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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.

Chicago Fire venue to be renamed SeatGeek Stadium

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The Chicago Fire won’t be moving into a new stadium 2019, however, their venue will have a new name donned on the side of it.

For years, the Eastern Conference side has played its home matches at Toyota Park in Bridgeview, Illinois, but starting next season the Fire’s home turf will be called SeatGeek Stadium as part of a rebrand.

SeatGeek is one of the largest online after-market ticket distributors, and was created back in 2009.

Toyota Park will undergo its transformation at the conclusion of the 2018 MLS season.

The venue is also home to the NWSL’s Chicago Red Stars.

MLS at Week 8: Galaxy host Atlanta, NYCFC aims to stay unbeaten out west

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A full weekend of MLS action kicks off on Friday night with two of the Western Conference’s elite, while Saturday and Sunday feature a number of quality matchups.

Zlatan Ibrahimovic and the LA Galaxy have been quite the attraction since the Swede made his move to MLS a few weeks ago, but Sigi Schmid’s side will be in for another early-season test on Saturday when they take on a red-hot Atlanta United.

[ MORE: Sweden not keen on Zlatan’s World Cup return ]

Both sides currently sit in second place in their respective conferences, while Atlanta boasts the second-highest goalscoring total in the league to this point, with 15 goals in six games.

Western Conference leaders Sporting KC have gone unbeaten in their last six matches since their opening day defeat to New York City FC, and Matt Besler and Co. will have another opportunity to put their stamp on the conference with a crucial match against the Vancouver Whitecaps, who sit third in the West.

NYCFC and FC Dallas remain on the only two unbeaten clubs left in 2018, although the latter has been far less convincing in its first five matches.

Patrick Vieira and NYCFC are coming off of a hard-fought 2-2 draw against Atlanta last weekend, and now head west to take on the Portland Timbers.

Meanwhile, Dallas plays host to the Philadelphia Union, who have taken just one win out of their first five games.

Here’s a look at the full slate of matches around MLS in Week 8.

Friday

Sporting KC vs. Vancouver Whitecaps — 9 p.m. ET

Saturday

Montreal Impact vs. Los Angeles FC — 1 p.m. ET
Houston Dynamo vs. Toronto FC — 3 p.m. ET
New York Red Bulls vs. Chicago Fire — 3:30 p.m. ET
Columbus Crew vs. New England Revolution — 7:30 p.m. ET
Orlando City vs. San Jose Earthquakes — 7:30 p.m. ET
FC Dallas vs. Philadelphia Union — 8 p.m. ET
Real Salt Lake vs. Colorado Rapids — 9 p.m. ET
LA Galaxy vs. Atlanta United — 10:30 p.m. ET

Sunday

Seattle Sounders vs. Minnesota United — 4 p.m. ET
Portland Timbers vs. New York City FC — 6 p.m. ET

Atletico defeat leaves Barcelona 1 win from title

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MADRID (AP) Atletico Madrid lost 3-0 at Real Sociedad on Thursday, leaving Barcelona one victory away from clinching the Spanish league title.

Barcelona, which drew 2-2 at Celta Vigo on Tuesday without most of its regular starters, can secure its 25th crown at Deportivo La Coruna on April 29.

[ MORE: Chelsea tops Burnley, trails Spurs by five points in UCL race ]

The Catalan club faces Sevilla in the Copa del Rey final on Saturday.

Barcelona has a 12-point lead over Atletico, with five matches left, and is 15 in front of third-place Real Madrid, which needed a late goal by Cristiano Ronaldo to draw 1-1 with Athletic Bilbao on Wednesday.

Another loss for Atletico on Sunday against Real Betis would leave Diego Simeone’s team out of contention for the title because Barcelona holds the head-to-head advantage between the clubs.

Willian Jose shot Sociedad ahead in the 27th minute at the Anoeta Stadium. Juanmi Jimenez made it 2-0 in the 80th after a perfect backheel from Jose before Jimenez scored again with an injury-time header.

It was a third straight win for Sociedad, which stayed 11th in the standings. Atletico hadn’t lost in three consecutive league matches.

GIRONA WINS

Girona ended a four-match winless streak with a 2-1 victory at Alaves, staying in contention for a Europa League spot next season.

Aleix Garcia opened the scoring for Girona in the 59th minute and Cristhian Stuani added a penalty in the 86th, moving the team within one point of seventh-place Sevilla.

Tomas Pina struck in the 90th minute for Alaves, which is 15th.

More AP Spanish soccer coverage: https://apnews.com/tag/LaLiga

Tales Azzoni on Twitter: http://twitter.com/tazzoni

Leicester 0-0 Southampton: Saints lose chance to gain relegation ground

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Leicester City and Southampton finished scoreless at the King Power Stadium on Thursday, as the latter failed to pick up three critical points in a heated Premier League relegation race.

The best opportunity on the day likely came in the second half when Marc Albrighton‘s brilliant volley was deflected over the crossbar by Saints keeper Alex McCarthy.

[ MORE: Chelsea tops Burnley with Moses’ second-half strike ]

Southampton boasted many of its regulars as they prepare to stave off being dropped down to the Championship next season, although Mark Hughes‘ side features in a big FA Cup semifinals clash over the weekend against Chelsea.

Chances were at a minimum in the opening stanza, with Leicester the more dominant of the two sides in attack, although it didn’t amount to much on their various counterattacking opportunities.

Kelechi Iheanacho threatened early on for the Foxes, coming close in the 15th minute with a strike that narrowly missed the far corner. This came briefly after he followed up on his own blocked attempt moments prior.

The Saints now sit four points behind 17th place Swansea City, while Leicester remains in eighth place — trailing Arsenal and the top six by 10 points.