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CR7, Lewy, Zlatan face elimination night

Three of Europe’s most celebrated strikers face World Cup play-off finals on Tuesday with one sure to be eliminated.

In Porto Cristiano Ronaldo’s Portugal host North Macedonia, whose shock dispatch of European champions Italy last week is still sinking in.

In Chorzow Robert Lewandowski’s Poland meet Zlatan Ibrahimovic’s Sweden.

For CR7, Lewy and Zlatan, as to varying degrees they style themselves, Qatar 2022 could be their last chance to grace football’s biggest stage.

Ronaldo, 37, is aiming to play in his 10th consecutive major tournament after appearing in four World Cups and five European Championships since 2004, scoring in every one, a unique feat.

How many more he will compete in is open to question. But the men’s highest international goalscorer said: “”I’m tired of those questions. Only I’ll decide my future, no one else. If I want to keep playing, I’ll keep playing. If not then not.”

In the meantime he is focusing on reaching Qatar.

“North Macedonia has surprised in many matches. We were surprised [they beat Italy]. But I don’t think they will surprise us tomorrow,” he said.

“The team is ready, I don’t care against who we play. If Portugal play at our highest level, we can win against any opponent in the world.”

North Macedonia, which gained independence from the former Yugoslavia in 1991, are trying to make it to the World Cup final for the first time after a European Championship debut last year.

Even the ageless Ibrahimovic is unlikely to be around for the 2026 finals. The years are catching up with the 40-year-old with a recent Achilles tendon injury limiting him to three brief substitute appearances for Milan since January.

“Zlatan is a weapon for us, but he cannot play the whole match,” said coach Janne Andersson.

“He was in full training and we’ll talk to the medical team to set a plan. But it’s difficult to predict a match.”

Lewandowski is the youngest of the trio at 33, but Poland are irregular qualifiers for the World Cup and there can be no guarantees they will make it in four years’ time.

With Arkadiusz Milik absent and another forward, Krzysztof Piatek, doubtful, the onus is even more than usual on the Bayern Munich striker to deliver.

Tuesday will not complete Europe’s World Cup line-up. In June Scotland and Ukraine meet to decide who faces Wales for the final place. That tie will be the last – and first – chance for another great forward, Gareth Bale, to play in a World Cup finals. Whether he makes it or not, he will be in exalted company.

With AP

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