‘CR7’s spirits up’ despite Juve slide; ‘patient’ Ibra returns to Sweden squad - GulfToday

‘CR7’s spirits up’ despite Juve slide; ‘patient’ Ibra returns to Sweden squad

Cristiano Ronaldo

Portugal’s Cristiano Ronaldo (left) at his team’s training session on the eve of their World Cup qualifying match against Azerbaijan in Turin. Agence France-Presse

Portugal coach Fernando Santos insisted on Tuesday that Cristiano Ronaldo’s morale has been unaffected by recent disappointments with Juventus.

European champions Portugal play their opening 2022 World Cup qualifier against Azerbaijan at the Juventus Stadium in Turin on Wednesday, due to coronavirus travel restrictions.

Ronaldo has been under fire in Italy after Juve’s Champions League last-16 exit to Porto and the weekend defeat by Benevento which left them 10 points behind Serie A leaders Inter Milan. Describing the 36-year-old Ronaldo as a “very good friend”, Santos said he found the player to be in high spirits.

“We’ve always been close to each other, very good friends, we don’t really have a coach-player relationship,” the 66-year-old Santos told a press conference.

“(Ronaldo) certainly represents great quality, he always shows great happiness and joy when he’s with the team.”

Ronaldo is bidding to break Ali Daei’s all-time men’s international goalscoring record, with the former Real Madrid attacker only seven goals short of the Iranian’s mark of 109. Portugal have qualified for the World Cup finals seven times, reaching the semi-finals in 1966 and 2006.

Alongside Ronaldo, they boast an array of attacking talent, including Manchester United star Bruno Fernandes, Atletico Madrid youngster Joao Felix and Liverpool’s Diogo Jota.

And after winning their first major title at Euro 2016, Santos believes the World Cup “is not really a dream, but something that can definitely come true”.

“We know Ronaldo always wants to conquer new trophies, but all the players want to win the World Cup,” he said.

“We can fight to become the world champions.”

Despite fifth-ranked Portugal being favourites against Azerbaijan, ranked 108th, Santos warned: “We mustn’t underestimate anyone. We know Azerbaijan can be quite dangerous on the counter-attack.”

Although defender Pepe is out after suffering an injury while playing for club side Porto, Ruben Dias believes the veteran’s absence “will change nothing”.

The European champions also travel to Serbia on Saturday and Luxembourg three days later.

IBRA’S EMOTIONAL RETURN: Meanwhile, an unusually reserved and humble Zlatan Ibrahimovic had to hold back the tears on Monday as he arrived in Sweden ahead of his return this week to the Swedish national squad after nearly five years away.

Veteran striker Ibrahimovic showed a more sensitive side to his usually brash public persona when he was asked about what his two teenage sons, Maximilian and Vincent, thought of his international comeback.

“It’s not a good question you’re asking. I had Vincent here, who actually cried when left him. But it’s OK, it’s OK,” he said with tears in his eyes.

Speaking to reporters days ahead of Sweden’s 2022 World Cup qualifier against Georgia on Thursday, the often boastful 39-year-old acknowledged he was much more “patient both on and off the field” than when he announced the end of is international career after Euro 2016.

“Right now you’re thinking: ‘He’s much too nice and much too humble’,” Ibrahimovic joked.

Sweden’s most successful player, the AC Milan forward retired from international football with 116 caps and 62 goals for his national team.

He announced his return to the squad in his usual style last week on Instagram with a picture of himself in the Swedish team kit with the caption “The return of the God”.

In a another sign of a “new chapter,” Ibrahimovic said he had asked to don the number 11 on his jersey rather than the 10 he used to sport.

“I asked nicely if I could have the 11,” he said, adding that teammate and Real Sociedad forward Alexander Isak had graciously agreed to give up the number.

Ibrahimovic and Sweden’s head coach Janne Andersson, who also attended the press conference, have had public arguments in the past but both of them insisted repeatedly those disagreements were now behind them. Glimpses of the old Ibrahimovic did however make an appearance.

“If you ask me I’m the best in the world,” Zlatan said as he broke into laughter.

He also said he had promised Andersson he would “decide matches”.

“I have my experience, I know what I’m good at.”

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