Portugal's Cristiano Ronaldo (C) celebrates with teammates after scoring a goal against Northern Ireland during their 2014 World Cup qualifying soccer match at Windsor Park Stadium in Belfast September 6, 2013. (Photo : REUTERS/Cathal McNaughton (NORTHERN IRELAND - Tags: SPORT SOCCER))
In just a few days the most hotly anticipated playoff match of the 2014 World Cup qualifiers will get underway when Portugal and Sweden face off in Lisbon.
The match will bring together two of the biggest names in world soccer in a game that could ultimately decide the Ballon d'Or winner. Interestingly, the deadline for the Ballon voting takes place on Friday and it will be interesting to see if this match has any effects on the result. Portugal enters the game as the higher seeded team and is seen by many as the favorites. Here is why Portugal should win this first round.
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Home field seems to have a powerful effect in world soccer and should give Portugal a solid advantage heading into this match. The Seleçao is undefeated at home in the World Cup qualifiers with three wins and two draws. More importantly, the team's biggest victory of the tournament, a 1-0 win over Russia, took place in Lisbon. Meanwhile, Sweden has a solid record of 3-1-1 on the road but drew 4-4 in Germany thanks to a miraculous effort and lost 2-1 in Austria.
Sweden has Zlatan Ibrahimovic... but not much more. There are some quality players on the team, but few would call them superstars, let alone world class players. Meanwhile, Portugal has terrific players like Pepe, Fabio Coentrao, Helder Postiga, Silvestre Varela, Nani, Joao Moutinho and Miguel Velosa as its supporting cast behind its main superstar Cristiano Ronaldo. In fact it was this depth that helped the team to second place in its group. Ronaldo struggled throughout the group stage despite managing four goals. However, Postiga led the team in scoring and such stars as Varela and Nani added goals in the final group game with Ronaldo suspended. This alone should tilt the balance in Portugal's favor.
This is a match of two superstars and their teams but both stars are expected to step up. Ibrahimovic has been better for his international side in the qualifiers of late, but Ronaldo has been unstoppable for his club in the last few weeks. He knows that this performance could tilt the Ballon d'Or in his favor, especially with Lionel Messi sidelined for eight weeks and no longer a threat for the trophy. Look for Ronaldo to seize the spotlight and guide his team to victory.