SOLNA, Sweden (AP) — Portugal qualified for the World Cup after a superb hat trick from Cristiano Ronaldo secured a 3-2 win over Sweden and a 4-2 victory on aggregate in Tuesday's thrilling finale to their playoff.
After a hesitant first half in which the Real Madrid forward missed several scoring chances, the much-awaited contest between two of the biggest names in world football — Ronaldo and Zlatan Ibrahimovic — finally burst into life in a spectacular second half.
Ronaldo broke the deadlock, Ibrahimovic struck twice to make it 2-1 to the hosts on the night — only for Ronaldo to score two more to secure his team's place in Brazil. "To be honest I think in both games we played better than Sweden," Ronaldo said. "I respect a lot Sweden, I think they have a fantastic team, they have experienced players, they have a good coach, but in both games we played better than them, we created more chances, we played solid.
"We have a mature team in these competitions, in (the) playoff, I think we deserved to win and we are the best team tonight." For his part, Ibrahimovic was sporting in defeat. "Of course I'm disappointed. I wanted to play the World Cup," he said. "We did our best. Unfortunately, we played against a better team, better than us no doubt."
That difference only really showed through in an action-packed second half. Four minutes after the break, Ibrahimovic provided a pass for Sebastian Larsson to take a shot that was saved by Portugal goalkeeper Rui Patricio. A minute later, Ronaldo opened the scoring, set up by a superb long pass by Joao Moutinho.
Ibrahimovic equalized with a header from a corner in the 68th minute. Three minutes later, Sweden won a free kick just outside the penalty area and Ibrahimovic fired home a fierce low shot to give the home team a 2-1 lead and raise a nation's hopes of qualification.
However, the home fans among the nearly 50,000 spectators didn't get to cheer for long. As Sweden pushed forward in search of a third goal and a 3-2 lead on aggregate, its defense became vulnerable to the counterattack.
And Ronaldo, who scored the only goal in last Friday's first leg in Lisbon made the home side pay. Latching on to a pass by Hugo Almeida, Ronaldo raced through to equalize with a clinical finish in the 77th minute. He brought up his hat trick just two minutes later — this time collecting a defense-splitting pass from Joao Moutinho — and could even have added to his goal tally later.
Ronaldo, who described Ibrahimovic as "a fantastic player", acknowledged that "it felt complicated for a moment after they scored 2-1... we suffered a little bit." Portugal coach Paulo Bento said he thought his team put up a good performance.
"We had to deal with some difficult periods, namely after the Swedish goals," he said. "But even in that period we had a good reaction. I think we did it as an organization as a whole but of course we cannot underestimate how important is Cristiano for us."
For Sweden coach Erik Hamren, the post-match was all about the pain of defeat. "It just hurts right now," he said. "It is a dream, an ambition that has died, it's hurting for everyone, it's really tough. Especially when we were close."