Cristiano Ronaldo's World Cup luck could be about to run out after his Portugal team was given a deceptively difficult matchup in Europe's qualifying playoff round.
Ronaldo, widely recognized as the second best player in the world behind Lionel Messi, will miss out on the tournament for the first time in his career if Portugal is unable to overcome Sweden in a home-and-home playoff on November 15 and 19.
Portugal can consider itself lucky by not being paired with 1998 World Cup winner France during Monday's draw at FIFA headquarters in Switzerland. In reality, Sweden might prove to be an even tougher proposition. With a solid, settled squad and star striker Zlatan Ibrahimovic – perhaps the best pure center forward in soccer – the Swedes like their chances of pulling off what would only be a minor upset.
"They will be evenly balanced and very competitive games," Portugal coach Paulo Bento told reporters. "Ibrahimovic is an imposing figure, but the Swedes are more than that. They are good collectively."
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There lies the rub for Ronaldo and his teammates, who often find life toughest against opponents who put stout defense as a priority.
Sweden's qualifying record of having conceded 14 goals in 10 games is deceptive, with nine of those coming in a pair of wild shootouts against Germany. Also, when Portugal and Sweden faced each other in 2010 World Cup group qualifying, the teams tied 0-0 twice. The Swedes only slipped behind Portugal and missed out on the playoffs due to a disastrous tie with Albania.
Portugal's inability to top its group ahead of eventual winner Russia was primarily due to its failure to break down the defensive mindset of Israel and Northern Ireland. Both games ended up as 1-1 draws on home soil.
It would be no surprise to see Sweden adopt a safety-first approach when its visits Portugal for the first leg before switching to a more aggressive strategy for the second match in Gothenburg. Sweden coach Erik Hamren accepted that much of the focus will be on Ronaldo and Ibrahimovic, but he insisted his team believes in its ability to shut down the Real Madrid star.
"World class players do something extra to change the game," Hamren said. "I am pleased we have a player like that too. But we need our whole team to be really good, to be focused and to have a clear plan."
Ronaldo is no stranger to the playoffs, having helped Portugal survive this phase to reach both the 2010 World Cup and the 2012 European Championships.
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On each of those occasions, Portugal beat Bosnia-Herzegovina to advance, but Ronaldo has never managed to fully realize his ambitions at the World Cup. Portugal lost in the semifinals in 2006 and was outplayed by Spain in the round of 16 three years ago, and some have questioned whether the legacies of Ronaldo – and Messi – can ever be considered complete unless they lead their national teams to a major title.
Right now, though, Ronaldo's biggest concern is just getting Portugal into the 32-team field that will take part in Brazil next summer. France feels the same sense of urgency.
The French were being pitted against Ukraine in an even clash that is tough to call. Les Bleus have some defensive issues and were well off the pace set by Spain in their qualifying group, while Ukraine was somewhat unfortunate not to win its group ahead of England and will be high on confidence.
In the other European playoff matchups, Greece will take on Romania, and the outsider of the bunch, Iceland, will seek to become the smallest nation (in terms of population) to reach the World Cup when it tackles Croatia.
However, all eyes will be on the marquee matchup of Portugal and Sweden, where at least one superstar will be doomed to a lonely summer of 2014.