One name, predictably, began to dominate from the moment Sweden’s memorable ascension to World Cup 2018 was secured at Italy’s expense.
From last week’s tantalising “We are Zweden” celebratory tweet to a timely return for Manchester United this Saturday after seven months sidelined through injury, rampant speculation about whether the iconic and enigmatic Zlatan Ibrahimovic will end his international retirement hasn’t ceased.
Even placed more than 7,000 kilometres away in the bowels of Al Ain’s Hazza bin Zayed Stadium, former – and potentially future – Blagult strike partner Marcus Berg was not spared questioning about the status of Swedish football’s defining figure.
“I do not know what will happen,” he tells Sport360° minutes after Friday’s rollercoaster 2-2 draw with depleted Arabian Gulf League champions Al Jazira, in which his early brace was dramatically cancelled out by UAE hot shot Ali Mabkhout. “There have been a lot of discussions and it is, first of all, up to Ibra if he comes back fit and wants to do it.
“Then, it is a question for the coach. He is a world-class striker.
“He’s been away for some months, so it is maybe difficult at his age . But I believe that he will come back as strong as he was before.”
— Manchester United (@ManUtd) November 18, 2017
It is more than a year since Ibrahimovic last pulled on Sweden’s trademark yellow jersey. His retirement in the wake of a dreary group-stage exit at Euro 2016 saw him bow out as national top scorer, with 62 goals in 116 appearances.
Throughout the – so far – final cycle of his international career, a productive partnership with Berg was established. Yet freed of the great man’s presence, Sweden’s current no9 has blossomed.
A vital eight goals in 11 qualifiers on the Road to Russia – including four against minnows Luxembourg – set his nation on their way to a play-off against the Azzurri. There, a resolute display during both legs ensured their progression at the expense of four-time champions who last failed to feature in 1958.
But would the potential comeback of Ibrahimovic present a threat?
Berg replies: “I do not think like that. For me, I just focus on myself to help the team and do my best on the pitch.
“Then, it is up to the coach [Janne Andersson] to decide.
“We had a good feeling on the pitch. He is a fantastic player, so for me I just tried to move around him to create space for me and for him.
“I had a good last two years with him before he quit.”
— قناة أبوظبي الرياضية (@ADSportsTV) November 18, 2017
June’s move away from the sport’s European heartland has not held Berg back, thus far. An impressive six goals in seven top-flight run-outs has followed a €3.3 million (Dh14.3m) switch from Greece’s Panathinaikos, meaning he’s remained prolific for club and country.
Berg is fully aware of the symbiosis between gaining further success for the UAE’s most-decorated team in 2017/18 and sustaining his starting spot for Sweden at their first World Cup since 2006.
“We all want to play there, not all the players get the chance to play at a World Cup,” says Berg, who currently possesses 18 international goals in 52 matches.
“For me, it is a big, big dream. I hope to have a good season with Al Ain and achieve big things, after I’ll go to the World Cup.”
The painful stalemate in ‘Al Clasico’ ensured that Al Wasl gained sole leadership in the AGL. Al Ain will hope to stay in the hunt on Thursday when they travel to minnows Dibba Al Fujairah.
With the 2018 World Cup approaching, the Albiceleste fans remain unconvinced by the five time Ballon d'Or winner despite his exploits in Europe.
Having come so close in the 2014 edition in Brazil, losing in the final against Germany, perhaps fans are being harsh on the superstar.
As far as Argentinians are concerned though, you either you win it or you don't. Messi hasn't yet and until he does, he cannot come near Diego Maradona in their eyes.
It doesn't seem to matter that Messi was Player of the Tournament in 2014 or that he's carried a suspect Argentina team on his shoulders through their qualifying campaign for the 2018 edition in Russia.
With the international break coming to an end, footballers from across the globe will be flooding back to their clubs in the coming days.
For some of this number, a spell away from the daily grind of domestic duty has provided them with a rare chance to shine.
Here, Sport360° looks at the forgotten figures who have sent out a strong message with excellent displays in their nation’s colours.
The shaky and fragile figure from his unconvincing early months at Manchester United disappeared in two redoubtable legs as Sweden shut-out Italy to make World Cup 2018.
Lindelof, 23, dug in superbly next to the experienced Andreas Granqvist at the heart of the Swedish defence. During two goalless matches for the Italians, he produced a combined 15 clearances and four interceptions to deny the likes of Serie A-top scorer Ciro Immobile and returning Andrea Belotti.
Such displays acted as a contrast to the horror show at Huddersfield Town and showed why manager Jose Mourinho was willing to spend an initial £30.8 million (Dh149m) last summer to draft him in from Benfica. With fellow centre-back Phil Jones picking up a knock with England, another opportunity could soon emerge – potentially when Newcastle United travel to Old Trafford this weekend.
A match-winning turn against Argentina should do wonders for an attacker who continues to flit in and out of Arsenal’s XI.
Playing up top with Leicester City’s Kelechi Iheanacho for Nigeria, he struck twice in the second half to complete an impressive 4-2 victory from 2-0 down against star-studded opponents. The 21-year-old artfully tucked away his first into the bottom corner on 52 minutes, before an impudent nutmeg on Barcelona’s Javier Mascherano later granted him space to side foot home a memorable second.
The challenge now is to make these flashes of brilliance a more-regular feature of his game. Last time out at Manchester City, he never looked like producing such excellence.
There could hardly be a greater contrast between the centre-back’s standing for club and country.
The 30-year-old scored at one end and cut a dominant figure at the other in last weekend’s deciding 2-0 win at Ivory Coast. This result ensured no goals were conceded in six third-round matches by a Morocco who sealed a return to the globe’s grandest stage for the first time since 1998.
Yet for Juventus, Benatia has only started 18 Serie A fixtures since he joined from Bayern Munich – initially on loan – in July 2016. He must hope head coach Massimiliano Allegri was watching.
The Internazionale express has left the centre midfielder behind in recent months, but he continues to be a key figure for Euro 2016 winners Portugal.
Mario, 24, scored late on in last week’s 3-0 win against Saudi Arabia and came off the bench to add experience to a weakened line-up for Tuesday’s 1-1 draw with United States. Such a role has not been afforded to him by Luciano Spalletti, has not started in Serie A since September 19’s 1-1 stalemate at Bologna.
With Inter losing some momentum prior to the international break when they recorded the same scoreline at home to Torino, his form for A Seleccao could not be better timed.
In a time of suffering for the United States after their failure to make Russia 2018, a new star appears to be emerging.
McKennie, 19, earned the man-of-the-match gong on debut thanks to a fine display against Portugal. The Texan teenager dribbled through the opposition defence to score his side’s only goal, also hitting the crossbar with a second-half header.
The midfielder was part of Schalke’s XI for the first time in a month and a half prior to the international break. Such form could see him remain for Sunday’s visit of Hamburg in the Bundesliga.