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Monday 23 April 2018

Zlatan carries Swedish hopes

World Cup dream rests with star striker

Portugal's Cristiano Ronaldo. Picture: Frank Augstein/AP
Portugal's Cristiano Ronaldo. Picture: Frank Augstein/AP

SWEDEN know their World Cup hopes rest on getting the ball to Zlatan Ibrahimovic, as they prepare for the second leg of their qualifying play-off against Cristiano Ronaldo and Portugal tonight.

The battle of the superstar forwards went Ronaldo's way in the first leg as his header gave Portugal a 1-0 advantage, and Sweden were left to ponder the scraps on which Ibrahimovic fed.

Sebastian Larsson believes Sweden simply need to play higher up the pitch in order to pose a greater threat.

The midfielder said: "We can not go out all guns blazing, but we must have a more attacking game with more ball higher up the pitch, then we will get Zlatan more in the game."

They could also have conditions on their side, with the Portuguese media already pointing nervously to forecasts which predict temperatures will be around freezing point.

With the condition of the pitch also being brought into question, Ronaldo is braced for a tough encounter.

"Portugal have a small advantage, and we are expecting a very difficult game, but we are ready," he said.

"We will have to be fully focused. More than anything else, these players want to be in Brazil."

While that tie remains delicately poised, France have it all to do following their surprise 2-0 defeat to Ukraine in Kiev last week.

Blaise Matuidi has called on Les Bleus to play "with heart, with guts and with the head" as they bid for an improbable turnaround.

The Paris St Germain midfielder said: "For most of us, it is the most important game in our careers.

"We all want to show something different to what we did on Friday. We have to be stronger in the battles and improve our technical quality. We have to play with heart, with guts, but with the head as well."

Ukraine have kept eight consecutive clean sheets, and goalkeeper Andriy Pyatov believes his defence can help secure one more and a ticket to Brazil.

"The guys have been great. This sequence was possible due to their efforts.

"When the goalkeeper is not beaten, the team has a better chance of winning."

Iceland did well to secure a clean sheet last week too, drawing 0-0 with Croatia in Reykjavik, but Niko Kovac is confident that Croatia will prevail on home soil second time around.

The coach watched his side dominate the match only to end up frustrated, but is confident ahead of the second leg.

 

Risky

"The impression remains that we are the better team and have a better overall repertoire," he said.

"They play very simple football with a lot of vertical switching and that's always risky.

"I am confident that we will repeat our dominant display in Zagreb and will ultimately get to Brazil."

Greece are strong favourites to advance from the remaining qualifier after taking a 3-1 lead against Romania in Athens last week.

The performance maintained Greece's strong form from their regular qualifying programme, in which they won eight out of 10 Group G matches only to finish second to Bosnia-Herzegovina.

Yet despite their advantage and strong defensive reputation, the side's Portuguese coach Fernando Santos will be taking nothing for granted.

Santos said after the first leg: "Although we are ahead in the tie we still need to go to Romania with a focused mindset. Nothing is over yet."

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