Two more nations from Europe have booked their tickets to 2022’s winter World Cup in a night of contrasting emotions.
North Macedonia stunned the footballing world when they eliminated Italy from Europe’s qualifiers last week, with Aleksandar Trajkovski producing late heroics in Palermo, but Blagoja Milevski’s Lynxes couldn’t prolong the Cinderella story in Porto as they fell to a 2-0 defeat in front of a raucous Portugal audience — a match described by Cristiano Ronaldo before a ball was kicked as “a matter of life and death” for his nation.
In the night’s other World Cup qualifier from UEFA, Sweden and Poland played out an intriguing match-up at the Silesian Stadium in Chorzow. After a tense first half, Poland ran riot after the interval to seal a 2-0 triumph of their own, and there were plenty of talking points from the evening…
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1. Ronaldo joins exclusive World Cup club
It’s official. Cristiano Ronaldo will play in his fifth World Cup. The Portuguese superstar has been part of the furniture at football’s quadrennial showpiece since Germany 2006, and he is now set to continue that trend 16 years on. From precocious wonderkid in Germany, to storied veteran in Qatar.
There would have been tangible concern that football’s most-prestigious tournament may have been without one of its leading protagonists when it looked all too certain that European champions Italy would be facing Portugal, but North Macedonia’s giantkilling shifted the momentum back in Ronaldo’s favour.
OFFICIAL: Portugal have qualified for the 2022 FIFA World Cup. 🇵🇹 pic.twitter.com/eSdmB154En
— Squawka News (@SquawkaNews) March 29, 2022
And it was the 37-year-old who took centre stage in the first big moment of the game at Porto’s hallowed Estadio do Dragao, collecting the ball off Manchester United team-mate Bruno Fernandes before slipping the playmaker back through on goal to break the deadlock and blunt North Macedonian dreams.
His ticket to Qatar now means he could be one of just five players who will appear at five World Cups in the tournament’s history, joining Mexican legends Antonio Carbajal and Rafael Marquez, as well as Lothar Matthaus in that exclusive club. And Lionel Messi, who has already secured his ticket with Argentina and will surely make an appearance later this year.
So, with Ronaldo now set to appear in Qatar, he could be in line to break yet another record. Should he score, then he will become the first player ever to net in 10 consecutive major international tournaments. Asamoah Gyan became the first to net in nine successive competitions, but Ronaldo could become the first double-digit doyen if he nabs in November.
Cristiano Ronaldo could be the man to break Asamoah Gyan's incredible record. ⏳ pic.twitter.com/VekDLwOKep
— Squawka (@Squawka) March 29, 2022
2. Lewandowski moves a place below Pele
Much of the pre-match narrative to Poland’s crunch clash against Sweden centred on Robert Lewandowski vs Zlatan Ibrahimovic, two of the game’s greatest-ever strikers doing battle for a place on the grandest of all stages. As it turns out, only one was given the nod by their respective national coaches.
And Lewandowski once again turned up for Poland. In what proved a nerve-tangling first half where it felt like the slightest error would be capitalised on, Lewandowski struck in the vital moment after Jesper Karlstrom conceded a sloppy penalty. Mistake made by Sweden, capitalised by Poland.
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This was a match with so much on the line that Lewandowski really wouldn’t have been worried about personal tallies and embellishing his scoring legacy further; they would have simply been happy by-products of getting Poland to Qatar, and happy by-products they proved, with Lewandowski moving to within touching distance of Pele in the all-time scoring charts.
As it stands, the Brazilian immortal sits 10th in those international charts on 77 goals. Lewy’s strike tonight has moved him level with Japan’s Kunishige Kamamoto and Kuwait’s Bashar Abdullah on 75 goals. Not quite one goal below the great man, but just a place below. And with Poland now attending the 2022 World Cup, there is every chance the Bayern Munich sharp-shooter can move into the top 10, cementing his status as one of the game’s all-time greats.
3. Pepe is made of different stuff
From the way Pepe galloped across the turf like a man possessed you would never think that he was a centre-back very much in the ‘dotage’ years of his career. His athleticism, speed and physicality belie his ageing legs as he produced a defensive masterclass of a player 10 years his junior.
In truth, some of the game’s greatest defenders have made up for their lack of mobility and speed through intelligent positional play, tackling virtuosity and superlative strength. Tonight, Pepe possessed all of those traits, and the physical attributes to boot, thumbing his nose at his birth certificate.
To play the way he did at 39 was a monumental effort from a player that has continued to shine for Porto at club level and turned up every time the Champions League appears. He translated that club form to the international stage, and starred as Portugal reached yet another World Cup.
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4. A night of blunders
It was a night where the nerves just seemed to get the better of a few players. The first goal of the evening came by virtue of a misplaced Stefan Ristovski pass into Fernandes’ path, and Portugal were clinical to canter forward and punish North Macedonia’s usually-reliable skipper. Sweden then got in on the act as Karlstrom careered into Grzegorz Krychowiak and sent the No. 10 flying to the turf. Again, mistake pounced upon as Lewandowski clinically dispatched from 12 yards.
North Macedonia then arguably produced another clanger as they had what appeared a sure-fire scoring opportunity before Pepe executed a world class tackle and sent Portugal on a devastating counter-attack that culminated in Fernandes firing home a thumping volley. And just to conclude the evening of self-destruct, Marcus Danielson’s mistimed back pass sent Piotr Zielinski clean through to put Poland 2-0 up and through to Qatar.
5. Ronaldo sets up Fernandes for only second time
Bruno Fernandes’ first Portugal goal was set up by Cristiano Ronaldo in 2018 against Algeria. Since then, either at club or international level, he has never repeated the trick… until tonight. There is something mesmeric on paper about the Ronaldo-Fernandes partnership, one that oozes class, devastation and proficiency. But for one reason or another it hasn’t really kicked on. Manchester United fans will be hoping that tonight is the catalyst for a boom in productivity.
Ronaldo is certainly more renowned for his scoring than assisting, but with two world-class attacking links on the turf, one would be inclined to think that they would have formed a more telepathic understanding. And yet, Ronaldo has only teed his team-mate up twice. None of Fernandes’ nine goals for Man Utd this term have come via a Ronaldo pass. Ralf Rangnick may be looking at proceedings in Porto to possibly formulate a more thorough blueprint to alter that trend.