Manchester United's Nani stretches for the ball during their English Premier League soccer match against Tottenham Hotspur at Old Trafford in Manchester, northern England, September 29, 2012. (Photo : REUTERS/Nigel Roddis)
When Portugal and Sweden face off next month in the World Cup qualifiers, Cristiano Ronaldo and Zlatan Ibrahimovic will undoubtedly be the biggest names on the pitch. However, outside of those two stars, which side has the overall better side.
Sweden managed to score 19 goals during its time in Group C and had to fend off teams like Germany, Ireland, and Austria in order to secure the second spot in the group. Ibrahimovic scored six goals in 10 qualifying games and led the team in scoring. After him, Johan Elmander, the other big star on the team, scored three goals and three Swedes managed to score two goals a piece; and another four chipped in with goals of their own. This would suggest some solid depth and a look at their qualifying matches suggests that the players distributed their goals in games against top contenders and minnows. In the 4-4 draw with Germany in October 2012, Ibrahimovic and Elmander scored on goal apiece; Mikael Lustig and Rasmus Elm scored the other two. In the big game against Austria last month, Ibrahimovic scored the game winner but Martin Olsson scored a crucial tying goal in the 68th minute with Austria up 1-0.
Portugal scored 20 goals in its Group F campaign and finished with one more point in the standings that Sweden. However, a group that includes Russia, Israel, Azerbaijan, Northern Ireland, and Luxembourg cannot compare with the challenges of Sweden. Portugal's group was certainly not "easier," but surely not as difficult as Sweden's. The surprise here is that Ronaldo was not the standout for Portugal. He scored four goals, but did not lead the team in scoring and only managed goals in two out of eight games. That's right. For 80 percent of qualifying, Ronaldo was not scoring goals. And yet this only speaks to the quality on Portugal that it managed to put up 21 points in 10 matches without its star player at his top form. Ronaldo scored when called on but when he was invisible players like Helder Postiga (six goals), Bruno Alves (four goals) and Silvestre Varela (two goals) stepped up in a big way. Four other players stepped up and scored as well.
Portugal's team is filled with top players that did not always figure on the score sheets including Pepe and Fabio Coentrao. The two Real Madrid defenders combined for one goal in qualifiers but have been a terrific pair at keeping offenses at bay and generating offense for their country. Nani, another top star, must also be considered despite his often erratic displays for his country.
Both sides have a plethora of depth behind their top stars, but Portugal has a slight edge in quality.