Ronaldo v Zlatan

Whichever way you cut it, the 2014 World Cup in Brazil will be missing one of the finest players on the planet. Friday night's play-off game between Portugal and Sweden has become as much about Ronaldo versus Zlatan as it has the respective nations. Only one will make it to Rio...

Portugal v Sweden

Only one of Zlatan Ibrahimovic and Cristiano Ronaldo will be at the World Cup. Who'll miss out?

Beginnings

Born to immigrant parents and growing up in the poor Rosengrad neighbourhood of Malmo, fame and fortune must have seemed a world away for the young Zlatan Ibrahimovic. But a talent for football soon became clear and he was a first-team player with Malmo by the age of 17. There was the disappointment of relegation in his first campaign as a professional but the rise since then has been inexorable. After making his international debut while still a teenager, a big-money move to Ajax followed within weeks and Zlatan was on the road to superstardom. The story of Cristiano Ronaldo dos Santos Aveiro begins in the garden of the Atlantic in the coastal town of Madeira. Like many of the greats his was a humble start. The home he shared with his three siblings and parents was so shy of space it housed a washing machine on the roof. Expelled at 14 for throwing a chair at his teacher, a precociously gifted Ronaldo decided with his mother's blessing to dedicate his life to football thereafter. As bold decisions go, it proved to be pretty astute in hindsight. Promise shown at local clubs Andorinha and Nacional soon earned him a move to Sporting Lisbon in 2002 and the rest, as they say, is history.

Glory

Although Ibrahimovic is yet to taste Champions League success - despite reaching the knockout stages of the tournament on no fewer than 10 occasions - his record suggests that the big Swede is a true model of consistency. Zlatan deals in leagues not cups. During his stunning career, he has won 10 league titles (two were revoked as part of the Calciopoli scandal) for six different clubs in four different countries. As a general rule, over the course of a long season it is the team that has Ibra leading the line that wins the title. Ronaldo said the desire to prove himself in another league was a major motivation behind his decision to leave Manchester United for Real Madrid and in this respect he's still got some work to do to catch up with continent-spanning serial winner Ibrahimovic. In four full seasons at Madrid he has won just the solitary title (2011/12) which, whisper it quietly, somewhat undermines the personal accolades bestowed upon him during his time in Spain. We'll likely never know how Zlatan would have done in England, but it's fair to say Ronaldo had the quite the impact on these fair shores. Three Premier League titles and a Champions League winners' medal is testimony to the fact Ronaldo can almost certainly do it on a wet and windy Tuesday night in Stoke.

Goals

Comfortably on course to reach the 20 goals benchmark for the eighth successive season, Ibrahimovic is now delivering for the seventh club of his career - proving that he can perform time and time again whatever the surroundings. The powerful frontman is nearing 300 club goals and it's not just about the volume either. Nobody can argue with the variety. Headers and tap-ins, long-range strikes and intricate dribbles, Ibrahimovic is capable of scoring every type of goal in the book... And more than a few that aren't. Karate kicking home crosses and lobbing goalkeepers with 40-yard scissor kicks are the preserve of Zlatan and Zlatan alone. It was not until Ronaldo's fourth season at Manchester United that he broke the 20-goal barrier that has long-since been the gold standard all self-respecting strikers judge themselves against. These days it's a figure he looks to notch up before Christmas. In the past three seasons - for club and country - he has scored 50 (10/11), 66 (11/12) and 51 (12/13). His numbers for Madrid are frankly ridiculous: 225 goals in 216 appearances. Like Ibrahimovic, Ronaldo is capable of scoring all types of goals and it his ability in the air that arguably makes him an even more complete player than Lionel Messi.

International record

With a record of one goal every two games for Sweden, Ibrahimovic has been a reliable goalscorer for his country over the years and is closing in on Sven Rydell's national record set in 1932. It is a role the Paris St Germain star has grown into since assuming the captaincy with his recent international performances proving particularly spectacular. Since 2012, the year in which he was named in the Euro 2012 Team of the Tournament, he has scored 17 goals in 18 games for Sweden, including all four against England at the opening of the national stadium in Stockholm. Considering Ronaldo spent much of his formative years playing wide right for his country, a record of 43 goals from 107 caps is quite the achievement. It is surely a matter of when not if he overtakes both Pedro Pauleta (47) and Luis Figo (127) in terms of goal and appearance records respectively. He has played in five major international tournaments; the first being Euro 2004, in which he helped Portugal to the final. Since 2008 he has worn the captain's armband, with his best showing coming in 2012 when he made the Team of the Tournament and finished as joint-top goalscorer as Portugal lost to Spain at the semi-final stage.

He said

ZLATAN "Zlatan doesn't do auditions." - When 'on trial' at Arsenal as a youngster at Malmo. "Zlatan style." - When asked to describe his style of play. "Nothing. She already has Zlatan." - When asked what he buys his wife for her birthday. "An injured Zlatan is a pretty serious thing for any team." - Ibrahimovic on Ibrahimovic. Zlatan on Ronaldo "Messi's a natural, whereas Cristiano is a product of training." - When asked to compare the stars. "I think we deserve to go to Brazil more." - On the play-off with Portugal. RONALDO "I'm living a dream I never want to wake up from." - The alarm is yet to go off for Ronaldo. "Some fans keep booing and whistling at me because I'm handsome, rich and a great player. They envy me." - Can't think why he sometimes gets bad press. "Ferguson is a maestro. For me he was my father in football. He was crucial in my career and, outside football, was a great human being with me." - On his special relationship with Sir Alex. "Without football, my life is worth nothing." - Ronaldo makes light of a string of model lady friends. Ronaldo on Zlatan "It's not a drama to be in the play-offs." - Ronaldo fails to react to his Swedish pal cranking up the pressure.

They said

On Zlatan "I have been playing football a long time but Zlatan's fourth goal is probably the best goal I have seen live." - Steven Gerrard on the acrobatic effort that capped a 4-2 win over England. "He was their hero when they were growing up, and now they're sitting beside him." - Sweden coach Erik Hamren on his relationship with his younger team-mates. "What I like the most about him is his availability on the pitch and the fact that he puts in a defensive shift. He is the engine of the team." - Paris St Germain boss Laurent Blanc. "He performed fantastically for us and he is a top level player." - Former Barcelona team-mate Xavi. On Ronaldo "There have been a few players described as the new George Best over the years, but this is the first time it's been a compliment to me." - George Best, the master of the one-liner. "Ronaldo is better than George Best and Denis Law, who were two brilliant and great players in the history of Manchester United." - Johan Cruyff pays quite the compliment. "Cristiano was the most gifted player I managed. He surpassed all the other great ones I coached at United - and I had many." - Sir Alex Ferguson in his autobiography. "There are some things Ronaldo can do with a football that make me touch my head and wonder how on earth he did it." - Luis Figo on the man who replaced him as the darling of Portugal.

Current Form

Despite failing to find the net in his first three appearances of the season, Ibrahimovic now has 17 goals in just 19 games of the current campaign. He is only one goal behind Radamel Falcao and Edinson Cavani as he looks to retain his title as top goalscorer in Le Championnat. But there is no doubt he has saved his best form for the Champions League, scoring seven goals in four matches, including a brace against Benfica and four goals at Anderlecht. He even warmed up for this one at the weekend with all three of PSG's goals against Nice. Ibrahimovic is ready. Ronaldo has made a solid enough start to the season. Domestically he has scored 16 goals from 13 appearances, while four Champions League games have seen him trouble the scoresheet on eight occasions. No less than four hat-tricks have been plundered, with Northern Ireland on the receiving end of a treble top in a qualifying game back in September. Like Ibrahimovic, he heads into Friday's game in optimum form having scored three of the five Madrid hit past Real Sociedad at the weekend. To recap, that's 27 goals in 20 games for club and country this term.

The Case

Ronaldo is great. We get it. He scores more goals for starters. He appears to have a similarly high opinion of himself. But the preening Portuguese forward is a little too self-conscious for the liking of some. He's aware of the eyes on him. There remains the suspicion that when the cameras are gone, Ronaldo is just a normal guy. Zlatan is Zlatan 24/7. A Swedish superhero. A man whose belief in himself is total. And unlike his Scandinavian counterpart Nicklas Bendtner, he can back it up. When the Sweden team lines up on Friday, they will look at the opposition and see Ronaldo standing there. They have every right to be worried. But then they will look to their captain and the belief that gives them might be enough for Sweden to find a way past Portugal. They'll know they have a world-class player in their own corner. And not just a world-class player but also a world-class leader of men. Don't believe me? Just ask Zlatan. Better than Zlatan? If you look at the numbers and take away the stirring of affection invariably invoked by sepia-tinged footage, a more pertinent question may be 'better than Pele?'. Take nothing away from Ibrahimovic, a glorious player and fascinating man, but Ronaldo will go to the grave as one of football's truly great players. If he can avoid serious injury over the next six months he'll almost certainly head into the summer on the back of scoring 50 or more goals in a single season for a fourth successive campaign. His crowning glory would be a winners' medal in a Portugal shirt. Such a feat appears likely to be beyond even his super-powers given the current Portugal side is more copper generation than golden, but the world's biggest stage deserves its brightest stars. We'd rather go to the pub with Zlatan but with apologies to the Swede, it is Ronaldo who is needed more in Rio.

To help make up your mind

"Ronaldo is a good player but he's certainly not the best. He deserved the Ballon d'Or because his team won the Champions League and Premier League, he played and he scored. But for me, Ibrahimovic is better." - Jose Mourinho back in 2008. "Is Zlatan better than Messi and Ronaldo? Right now, I'd say he is. At 32, you know how to get the best from your talent." - Arsene Wenger last month. "It's simple. For me the best player right now is Cristiano. He's the top scorer in the league, the top scorer in the Champions League and if we talk about technical quality he is the best." - Carlo Ancelotti this month.
UEFA Champions League goals - 2013/14
Player Club Goals
Cristiano Ronaldo Real Madrid 8
Zlatan Ibrahimovic Paris St Germain 7
Lionel Messi Barcelona 6

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