By CAITLIN MURRAY
Cristiano Ronaldo again proved Tuesday why he is one of the greatest to ever play the game, much to the chagrin of Sweden and Zlatan Ibrahimovic.
In a battle of Ronaldo vs. Ibrahimovic, it was one-time Ballon d’Or winner Ronaldo who lifted his nation to victory. Ronaldo enjoyed an impressive hat-trick performance that helped Portugal punch its ticket to the 2014 World Cup and delivered a final blow to Sweden’s run for Brazil.
Portugal entered the second leg of the series ahead 1-0, but Sweden – and especially Ibrahimovic – seemed poised to rectify the deficit.
After a scoreless first half, Ronaldo opened on a breakaway in the 52nd, beating three defenders and finishing far post. But Sweden quickly found their footing.
In the 69th minute, Ibrahimovic took advantage of poor defending in the air on a corner, putting a header into the net. Three minutes later, the Paris Saint-Germain forward sent a low free kick through the wall for another, pulling Sweden ahead 2-1 in the match and one goal away from taking the lead on aggregate.
But Ronaldo came roaring back to finish the Swedes swiftly and perhaps make a case for a second Ballon d’Or trophy. In the 78th minute, the Real Madrid striker mirrored his previous goal, beating defenders and sending a left-footed shot to the far post, before again outrunning the Swedish back line for his third of the day a minute later.
The match was a memorable clash of two of the world’s top players, to be sure, but only Portugal is off to Brazil to compete for the World Cup while the Swedes will have to wait for 2018 – likely without Ibrahimovic, who will be 36 then.
The other remaining UEFA World Cup qualifying berths were clinched on Tuesday. Here’s a recap of those matches:
FRANCE DEFIES ODDS AND SURGES BACK IN SECOND LEG TO PUT UKRAINE AWAY
In a stunning comeback, France overturned a two-goal first-leg deficit with a 3-0 thrashing of Ukraine to secure a ticket to Brazil.
Mamadou Sakho started things off for France, scoring his first international goal by pouncing on a deflected shot and returning the ball from close range in the 22nd minute. Twelve minutes later, Karim Benzema scored on a shot deflected into his path, stroking it to the bottom corner.
To add insult to injury for the Ukrainians, Yevhen Khacheridi was carded off in the 47th, forcing them to play with 10 men. France took advantage, forcing an own-goal by Ukraine’s Oleg Gusev that pushed Les Bleus ahead on aggregate for the first time in the series.
There was little Ukraine could do after that and France avoided the embarrassment of possibly missing the World Cup for the first time in two decades.
ICELAND MISSES FIRST TRIP TO WORLD CUP AT HANDS OF CROATIA
The underdog of UEFA’s World Cup qualifiers made an impressive run for a berth to Brazil. But alas, Iceland’s first trip to the world’s largest stage wasn’t meant to be as Croatia handed them a comfortable 2-0 loss to dash the island country’s hopes.
Mario Mandzukic opened scoring in the 27th minute with a back-post finish giving Croatia the lead for the first time in the series after a scoreless first leg. Mandzukic was then carded off before the second half, seemingly giving Iceland a fighting chance, but it was all for naught.
Two minutes into the closing 45 minutes, Croatia’s Darijo Srna scored on a difficult angle to all but end Iceland’s hopes.
With their win, Croatia qualified for a World Cup for the first time since 2006.
BUOYED BY FIRST-LEG BLOWOUT, GREECE ADVANCES WITH DRAW OVER ROMANIA
Greece qualified for their third World Cup, drawing 1-1 with Romania on Tuesday after their 3-1 first-leg victory.
Greece set the tone in the first half when Kostas Mitroglou brought down a chip pass and slotted it past Romania’s goalkeeper.
Romania seemed to enter the second half with new resolve, but their only goal of the night came from a botched clearance that turned into an own goal by Greece’s Vasileios Torosidis. Romania rallied late, creating chances, but the Greek back line was up to task of preserving their two-goal aggregate lead.
What do you think of the epic Ronaldo vs. Ibrahimovic showdown? Impressed with the character France showed vs. Ukraine? How do you see Greece and Croatia faring next summer in Brazil?
Share your thoughts below.