March 30 – Portugal and Poland booked their places at the World Cup finals on Tuesday night as the dreams of highly fancied Sweden and rank outsiders North Macedonia ended on what should have been the final European playoff games.
Robert Lewandowski and Piotr Zielinski were gifted second-half goals, the first a penalty, to beat the Swedes who dominated the game but paid for their mistakes while Polish keeper Wojciech Szczesny made a string of fine saves.
“We had many problems before this match,” said Lewandowski. “A lot of our players were injured, including me – I had a problem with my knee. We suffered, but now we can celebrate. I am proud and happy.”
If the Poles got lucky having been awarded a bye straight into the playoff final following Russia’s expulsion from world football, it was tough to take for a vibrant Swedish team that had to get past the Czech Republic in extra time only five days previously.
Veteran Zlatan Ibrahimovic was introduced with 10 minutes to go but it was too little, too late and the 40-year-old has now almost certainly played his final World Cup finals match. After just missing out on automatic qualification via the group stage, the Swedes, 2018 World Cup quarter-finalists, have now suffered the ultimate knockout blow.
Not so 37-year-old Cristiano Ronaldo for whom there will be at least one more World Cup.
The all-time top scorer in men’s international football will get to play in his fifth after Portugal downed North Macedonia – shock conquerors of European champions Italy in the playoff semi-finals – 2-0 in Porto.
“Goal accomplished,” Ronaldo said on Instagram after the match. “We made it to the World Cup in Qatar. We are where we deserve to be.”
This time there was no stunning late winner for North Macedonia against another traditional powerhouse as Bruno Fernandes scored both goals to secure Portugal’s place in the finals for the sixth straight time.
Portugal will now be among the seeds in Friday’s draw which will still be missing one European finalist, June having been set aside for the postponed playoff semi-final between Scotland and Ukraine, with Wales awaiting the winner.
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