By Philip O'Connor
STOCKHOLM (Reuters) - It was billed as a clash of the titans with Ronaldo and Zlatan Ibrahimovic in the starring roles but at the end of the night Portugal's captain took the plaudits as his stunning hat-trick clinched a World Cup spot.
The drama took a long time coming but it was worth waiting for the second act with Ronaldo putting the visitors ahead after the break only for Sweden skipper Ibrahimovic to score twice before the Portuguese had the last word with two more goals.
Ronaldo's heroics secured a 3-2 win on the night and, after his goal in Lisbon, a 4-2 aggregate playoff victory to secure a place at next year's finals in Brazil. Ronaldo also equaled Portugal's all-time goalscoring record of 47 held by Pauleta.
"I know Portugal needed me in these matches and I showed that I am here," he told Portuguese TV after the game.
Portugal coach Paolo Bento had spent the week playing down the notion that he presided over a one-man team but Ronaldo's four goals over the two legs tell a different story.
Despite indifferent performances by both captains in the first leg, it was Ronaldo who dived among the flying boots late on in the first leg to give his country a precious 1-0 lead.
With the return being played at a stadium dubbed 'the Zlatan Arena', Ibrahimovic had it all to prove and he did his best, sending a corner flying into the net with a glancing header before smashing home a free kick from the edge of the box.
But, in the end, Ronaldo was the difference.
When Sebastian Larsson threatened to put Sweden in front, Ronaldo latched on to Joao Moutinho's delightful pass to fire left-footed past Andreas Isaksson and put his side ahead.
When Ibrahimovic netted his second goal to put the pressure on Portugal, Ronaldo simply upped the tempo, twice sprinting away from the defense to kill off Sweden's spirited challenge with Moutinho again providing the killer pass for the third.
"He gets three chances on counter-attacks, and he scores three goals," Ibrahimovic said. "It's what he's best at."
When the Portugal skipper netted his third goal, even Ibrahimovic was applauding and Ronaldo later complimented his great rival, saying: "Zlatan is a fantastic player, and when you feel great support from your team, it's great."
Ibrahimovic, at 32, now faces the harsh reality that he will end his career without scoring at a World Cup finals while the 28-year-old Ronaldo can look forward to gracing the greatest soccer show on earth next June in Brazil.
Almost every player from both sides was asked for their opinion of Ronaldo after the game. Moutinho's answer was echoed by most of those who spoke into the waiting microphones.
"What is there to say? He's the best in the world."
(Reporting by Philip O'Connor; Editing by Ken Ferris)