Cristiano Ronaldo’s late winner earned Portugal a narrow victory over Sweden at the Estadio da Luz.
Paulo Bento stuck with his traditional 4-3-3 with Ronaldo, Nani and Helder Postiga leading the line. Miguel Veloso, Joao Moutinho and Raul Meireles formed a midfield trio.
Erik Hamren didn’t provide many surprises either, as he preferred a 4-4-1-1 with Zlatan Ibrahimovic ahead of Johan Elmander. Alexander Kacaniklic and Sebastian Larsson operated on the flanks, while Kim Kallstrom and Rasmus Elm played in midfield.
Sweden defended admirably for large portions of the match, but Portugal’s guile, and perseverance guided them to an important victory.
Hamren’s aim was evident in the opening minutes of the match, as his side swiftly dropped into a 4-5-1 without the ball. The Swedish wingers tucked in centrally to help maintain a narrow shape and Elmander admirably tracked Veloso. Elmander’s positioning on Veloso was significant – in the past Veloso’s opted to drop between the centrebacks and play long diagonal balls to build play from the back. But here, Elmander prevented the Portuguese midfielder from dictating the tempo of the match.
With Elmander keeping Veloso quiet, Elm and Kallstrom had the duty of tracking Moutinho and Meireles. Hamren’s approach prevented Portugal from constant penetration in the final third, yet it also provided an attacking spark for Sweden. Sweden’s narrow shape allowed Portugal’s fullbacks forward, but it left gaps for Swedish fullbacks – mainly Mikael Lustig – to expose.
A main issue Portugal’s encountered over the past few years has been preventing 2v1 situations on the left flank, as Ronaldo sits higher up the pitch to lodge quick counters. In the 6th minute, Lustig got into an advanced position and delivered a great cross towards Elmander, but the Swedish striker directed the ball inches wide.
Seconds later, Hamren’s men got forward again, and earned a corner kick, as the Portuguese defenders couldn’t cope with Lustig’s venomous ball into the box. Sweden’s best chance of the half also stemmed through great wing play from Hamren’s men. Elmander did well to deliver a cross into the box, and Ibrahimovic cleverly dummied the oncoming ball, and it fell to Larsson who watched Rui Patricio parry away his shot.
Sweden’s shape nullified Veloso, halted Portugal’s activity in the final third and gave them attacking options from wide areas, but they were unable to make the most of their created chances.
Sweden’s reactive approach towards the match handed Portugal the onus to go forward and search for a goal. One of the main issues this Portuguese team has encountered over the years is breaking down sides that sit deep, focus on organization, and maintain a compact shape when out of possession.
Bento’s men experienced the same recurring issues in the first half. The front three struggled to get involved in the match, thus leading to Ronaldo and Nani constantly swapping positions. The Portuguese wide men often took up more central positions to receive the ball, as their fullbacks and midfielders were encouraged to attack space in wide areas and attempt to create overloads.
In particular, Joao Pereira enjoyed heaps of space on the right flank with Kacaniklic tucked in centrally, but the Portuguese right back’s crosses didn’t connect with any attacking players. Martin Olsson and Kacaniklic struggled from defensive aspect throughout the match, and despite Bento’s men enjoying success down that flank, the productivity from the right was poor.
Meireles and Moutinho’s activity in the final third was limited when they attempted to build play from the back. The Portuguese duo were forced to drop deeper in midfield to string passes together and their combination should’ve led to an opener in the 4th minute. Meireles slipped a pass between the Swedish defence, and an advancing Moutinho received the ball, rounded Andreas Isaksson, but his shot hit the side netting.
Meireles and Moutinho both finished the match with an 85% pass accuracy rate, while Moutinho completed a game-high four tackles and accurate crosses. Meireles was dangerous in deeper positions, as he lobbed passes over the Swedish defence, attempting to get Portuguese attackers in goal-scoring positions. The Portuguese pair were influential throughout the match, and although they were restricted to certain areas across the pitch, they were able to dictate the tempo of the match.
Portugal got into great positions in the final third out wide, but they were stifled in central areas. Hamren’s men maintained a compact shape in two banks of four – this forced Portugal’s midfield into deeper positions and their attacking three were ineffective. For all of Portugal’s possession in the first half, it was shocking to know that Sweden had created the better chances, despite Ibrahimovic’s minimal influence.
Portugal’s main concern heading into this two-legged affair was clear. Bento’s men were on a mission to neutralize Ibrahimovic, and over the course of 90 minutes, they succeeded.
First off, Sweden’s shape without the ball was an issue. Their midfield bank of five were pegged too deep into their half, and their transitions into attack were slow. Ibrahimovic was an isolated figure – in the first half, the Swedish striker had 17 touches on the ball. When the prolific striker successfully held the ball up, he lacked options and support to help push Sweden forward, but more importantly he didn’t receive adequate service.
Secondly, Pepe and Bruno Alves held a 2v1 advantage over the Swede, and their physical presence kept the prolific striker quiet. Ibrahimovic didn’t have any clear goal-scoring opportunities, nor was he allowed space to penetrate – the Portuguese centre backs performed a magnificent job on the Swede, as he was merely a peripheral figure.
Portugal down the left
As the second half wore on, Portugal’s overall performance improved, due to Hamren’s men dropping deeper into their third. Ultimately, this left a large gap between Ibrahimovic and the Swedish midfield, and it placed a daunting task on the Swedish wingers, who were forced to track runs from Portugal’s adventurous fullbacks.
Nonetheless, Bento’s troops were still struggling to test Isaksson. Majority of Portugal’s play came down the left flank, where Coentrao began to take advantage of Larsson, as the Swedish winger’s energy levels dipped quickly.
- 70th minute: Coentrao and Almeida completed a one-two and the Portuguese full back got behind Larsson and drove towards the box, where he was tugged down by the Swede, thus leading to a Larsson booking.
- 80th minute: Nani’s movement pushed Lustig out of position, and Coentrao played a pass behind the Swedish fullback towards the Portuguese winger. Nani delivered a decent ball into the box, which was half-heartedly cleared by Anders Svensson, presenting an ideal shooting angle for the Portuguese winger, but Svensson made a timely block to earn Portugal a corner kick.
- 88th minute: Ronaldo received the ball on the left side of the pitch, and wonderfully turned Lustig to break free. The Portuguese captain played in an advancing Coentrao – who once again got past Larsson – and his dangerous cross in the box fell to Moutinho, who laid the ball off for Ronaldo, but he fired his shot over the net.
Towards the end of the match it was evident that Bento’s men targeted Larsson. Portugal got into great positions through these three situations, as Ronaldo’s winner and his header off the crossbar were created down this flank.
Over the past few years, Postiga and Hugo Almeida have been maligned figures for the national team. Their inability to capitalize in front of goal has led to their ridicule, but it would be difficult to criticize the Portuguese strikers here.
However, despite Postiga’s positive attacking contribution, Bento decided to take another route of attack, and introduced Almeida. The move created turmoil worldwide over social media, but Almeida’s impact on the match provided Portugal with that extra bit of attacking impetus they lacked throughout the half.
- 65th minute: Almeida receives the ball between the lines and is allowed to turn and play an overweighed pass to Coentrao, who flew past Larsson into a goal scoring position. Although the ball went out for a goal kick, Almeida displayed his intent to penetrate in the final third, opposed to feeding the ball back to the midfield like Postiga.
- 70th minute: As stated earlier, his one-two with Coentrao got the Portuguese fullback into a dangerous position, which resulted in a Larsson booking.
- 82nd minute: Veloso quickly threw the ball into Almeida’s feet, and their quick one-two allowed Veloso to evade Larsson and deliver a cross into the box. Ronaldo got in front of Olsson and his diving header flew past Isaksson. This was significant because it was one of the few times Veloso wasn’t shackled by Elmander, and Ronaldo finally decided to target Sweden’s weak link in Olsson – Lustig had a pretty decent outing coping with Nani and Ronaldo in 1v1 situations.
- 85th minute: Almeida drifted to the left flank and received a lovely diagonal ball from Joao Pereira. The Portuguese striker lofted a ball into the box, and once again Ronaldo beat Olsson, but his header rang off the post.
Portugal dominated the second half, but Almeida’s introduction made the difference. The Portuguese striker’s movement, mobility and intent to penetrate, gave his side an element of attack they lacked, prior to his arrival.
Although the performance from Bento’s men was below par, Ronaldo’s goal puts Portugal in a great position to progress to the World Cup. However, failure to increase their lead in the second half could come back to haunt the Portuguese as they squandered several chances to win the tie.
“I’m always disappointed when we lose. On the whole, we played a good match defensively. What hurts a bit is that we had three good chances to take the lead in the first half. We would have liked to have come away from here having scored a goal,” Hamren said.
Sweden had the better chances in the first half, and defended admirably for large portions of the match, but one defensive miscue proved costly. In fairness, their negative approach in the second half allowed Portugal to mount pressure in their third, and limit their chances of nicking an important away goal. Sweden looked better when they attempted to play through midfield, opposed to the direct approach they adopted in the second half, as Ibrahimovic was often disconnected from the midfield.
“We dominated the whole match, even more so in the second 45 minutes, as we created several chances to get a more comfortable result. Now the goal is to prepare the team to win again in Sweden, knowing that we are going there with a slender lead but with no goals conceded. We certainly won’t go to Sweden to defend this result,” Bento said.
Nevertheless, this was an ideal result for Portugal. Ronaldo struggled throughout the match, but the team fought hard, and provided him the platform to once again display his superiority on the field. The importance of the first goal will be crucial in Stockholm, but the occasion plays into Portugal’s hands. Sweden will be forced to attack from the start, and Portugal’s reactive approach and threat on the counter could expose a feeble Swedish backline. Bento’s men are nearly there, but they’ll need to defend better, attack with more precision and be efficient in front of goal if they intend on securing qualification.