By Kris Voakes | International Football Correspondent
Cristiano Ronaldo versus Zlatan Ibrahimovic, they called it. It could have been Ronaldo versus the rest of the world and he would still have won. On this night, he was just that good.
Portugal are going to the World Cup with the accusations that they are a one-man team ringing in their ears, but when the character in question can deliver performances like the one Ronaldo turned it at the Friends Arena on Tuesday, then why is that such a bad thing?
Sweden took some time to get going, and when Ronaldo opened the scoring in the 50th minute with a splendid finish on the counter-attack from a Joao Moutinho pass, they looked dead and buried. They fought back thanks to two goals from the brilliant Ibrahimovic which levelled the scores on aggregate but left them still trailing on away goals.
King of Portugal | Ronaldo delivered on his country's most crucial night
Yet Ronaldo was not about to let his countrymen be put through the ringer. He grabbed a second strike on the break after collecting Hugo Almeida’s pass with his back to goal, slotting beyond Andreas Isaksson to leave Sweden needing two more goals. But that wasn’t enough. He still had to leave everybody in no doubt at all that it was his night, his tie, his year.
With Sweden now struggling to even get within five yards of him, Ronaldo broke through again, rounded Isaksson, and smashed the ball high into the net. It was 3-2 and game over. Ibrahimovic’s World Cup career was over too, but Ronaldo looks like he is only just getting going.
It was one of the best hat-tricks you could wish to see, delivered on the biggest night in Portuguese football for a year and a half. When they needed a big-game player with a big-game attitude, the biggest of them all delivered.
We shouldn’t ever have really doubted him. With 66 goals in the calendar year, Ronaldo has again excelled. Whereas Lionel Messi has been left to struggle with various injury issues for the past eight months, the Portuguese superstar has been busy turning in top performance after top performance for both club and country. On Tuesday, he also equalled Pauleta's all-time Portugal scoring record of 47 goals.
It may not be Messi’s fault that the Conmebol qualification system meant Argentina’s progression to the finals was never in doubt, but the fact that Ronaldo has delivered again and again in a string of do-or-die Portugal performances says a lot about the pair’s differing fortunes in 2013. While the Barcelona genius has had a quiet spell by his massive standards, Ronaldo has turned in arguably his greatest ever year. Tuesday simply topped it all off.
If the Ballon d'Or voting is reopened as has been reported, the Ronaldo could well win the award on the strength of one night alone, so good was he against Sweden. As it is Franck Ribery remains the favourite to carry it home, but there is no doubting who the world’s most in-form player is as we approach the 200-day countdown to the World Cup finals.
Going into the play-off tie, many wondered whether we may be heading to Brazil without Ronaldo next June. Instead, he looks likely to be the man we’ll be talking about right through the tournament. The world’s best is more than ready for the World Cup.