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.

La Liga roundup: Barcelona, Real Madrid remain level on points after wins (video)

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Routine wins from league favorites Barcelona and Real Madrid, highlight La Liga’s Saturday action.

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Barcelona 5-2 RCD Mallorca

It was a special night at Barcelona’s Camp Nou.

Fresh from winning the Ballon d’Or for a record sixth time, Lionel Messi was greeted by his three children on the field, who handed him a shinny, golden ball – given yearly to the best player in the world – prior to the first whistle.

From that point on, it was evident that it would be all smiles for everyone tied to the defending champions at the stadium (and for those watching remotely) on Saturday.

 

That was the case.

Antoine Griezmann – a topic of conversation due to lack of productivity at Barcelona this season – kicked off the game with a solo run and subsequent goal in the seventh minute, opening the floodgates.

As a celebration of his latest, individual accomplishment, Messi showcased the power and precision of his left foot at the tune of a hat-trick. The Argentine ace scored twice in the first half and another in consolation time, putting his season total mark at a league-best 12 goals.

The moment and goal of the night (possibly of the season) didn’t directly involve Messi, however. With a daring, emphatic and genius back-heel strike, not only did Luis Suarez put the home side up 4-1, but cemented himself in the ballot for best goal of the season.

With 34 and a better goal differential than Real Madrid, Barcelona remain atop of La Liga ahead of their clash with Inter Milan on Tuesday, while Mallorca hope Ante Budimir can score another brace; this time against a struggling Celta Vigo next weekend.

Real Madrid 2-0 Espanyol

With goals from Karim Benzema and Raphael Varane, Real Madrid comfortably cruised past a struggling Espanyol.

With the majority of Real Madrid in Espanyol’s final third following a recovered free-kick attempt, Benzema charged his way into the box before laying off a ball to Varane, who not a proven goalscorer whatsoever, placed the ball into the back of the net with ease.

It was the 37th minute, and the home side were up 1-0 against a poor Espanyol.

With a notable superior style at hand, Los Blancos continued to surge forward. Opportunities at goal were generated but the ball wouldn’t go past ex-Real Madrid ‘keeper Diego Lopez.

Then, in the 79th minute, Benzema registered his 11th goal of the season, finishing an off-balance pass from Federico Valverde inside the box.

Winners in their last La Liga bouts, Real Madrid now prepare for their Champions League Group Stage finale against Club Brugge midweek. Espanyol, despite being in the drop zone, host CSKA Moscow in their Europa League Group Stage finale. The Catalonian club lead Group H with 11 points after five matches.

Elsewhere in La Liga

Granada 3-0 Alaves

Levante 2-4 Valencia

Ancelotti’s future uncertain after Napoli draws at Udinese

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ROME (AP) Carlo Ancelotti’s future as Napoli coach is uncertain after his team failed to beat Udinese on Saturday in Serie A.

The 1-1 draw extended Napoli’s winless run to nine matches in all competitions. Piotr Zelinski saved Napoli with a late goal that salvaged a point for the visitors.

Amid reports that Ancelotti could soon be fired, Napoli, which had won its last six league matches against Udinese, went a goal down after a counterattack which was finished by Kevin Lasagna in the 32nd minute.

Napoli improved after Fernando Llorente replaced an uninspired Lorenzo Insigne in the second half. It equalized after a good combination between Dries Mertens and Zielinski, who wrongfooted the Udinese ‘keeper with a shot into the bottom corner.

Also, Atalanta twice came from behind after Samuel Di Carmine’s two goals to beat Hellas Verona 3-2 with a late winner from Berat Djimsiti, who volleyed home from close range.

More AP soccer: https://apnews.com/apf-Soccer and https://twitter.com/AP-Sports

Kyle Walker: City catching up to Liverpool ‘difficult’ after derby loss to United

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After a crushing 2-1 loss to archrival Manchester United at home, 14 is the new magic number for Pep Guardiola and company.

14 is the number of points that Manchester City trail league leaders Liverpool by, an uphill battle that is influencing many people on the outside looking in to think that City’s chances of lifting the league’s silverware for a third straight season are officially done and dusted.

That’s not the narrative that is occupying Kyle Walker‘s train of thought, however. Speaking on behalf of his City teammates and himself, the defender is keen on fighting until they’re mathematically out of contention for the title, regardless if the standings show that Liverpool have yet to suffer a defeat this season after 16 matches.

“Can’t fault the manager,” Walker told Sky Sports following City’s second Premier League loss in five games. “He has won numerous trophies. I can’t put my finger on it. It is going to be difficult, Liverpool are on fire. They [Liverpool] are getting wins and we are not. It is a big gap but we will fight until the end.”

A consolation goal from Nicolas Otamendi in the 85th minutes wasn’t enough for the Cityzens, who endured a fourth league loss this season, matching last season’s number of losses throughout 38 games.

After the dispiriting derby day performance from City, the defending champions stand at 32 points after 16 bouts, the lowest point haul for Guardiola in his 11-year top-flight management career.

No team in league history has overcome a 14-point deficit. Since late October, City are yet to record a clean sheet, an apparent issue that Walker believes he and the rest of the team’s defenders need to address in order to return to old ways.

“Us as defenders need to hold our hands up,” he said. “We need to keep clean sheets and strikers maybe need to put more away. They had a game plan and it worked. They have quick players in quick areas and they are going to hurt you on the counter. Credit where credit is due, they stepped up today. Fair play.”

WATCH: Luis Suarez delivers one-of-a-kind back-heel goal

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At 32 years of age and with a 15-year career behind him, Luis Suarez has scored some emphatic goals.

On Saturday, however, he painted a fine piece of art, a goal that became an instant classic the moment the ball came off of his backheel. With Barcelona already up 3-1 against RCD Mallorca, Ernesto Valverde’s men continued to push forward, comfortably and strategically ping-ponging the ball around the defensive-oriented visitors.

And then Frenkie de Jong found the ball at the top of the box.

The Dutch international smoothly placed a through ball, finding Suarez, who with precision and expertise that only he has, belted the ball into the bottom-right corner of Manolo Reina’s goal.

It’s only December, but the Uruguayan’s goal is an automatic La Liga goal of the season contender: