Italy face crunch Sweden game as World Cup disaster beckons

Italy face crunch Sweden game as World Cup disaster beckons
Italy face Sweden tonight in their World Cup play-off game knowing that they are in real danger of missing football’s showpiece event for the first time since 1958.

Italy went down to a 1-0 defeat in the first leg in Stockholm on Friday, and must overturn that deficit tonight at San Siro in Milan to avoid missing their first World Cup in 60 years.

The scenario of the four-time champions missing out on a place at Russia 2018 has been described as “apocalyptic” by Italian FA chief Carlo Tavecchio, but is now a very real prospect.

Much-maligned Italian head coach Gian Piero Ventura has said his team will try to qualify by “playing football,” alluding to a combative first leg against the Swedes which left Italian defender Leonardo Bonucci with a broken nose.

“We are Italy and, if we qualify, I would like to be able to say that we did it by playing football,” Ventura said at the pre-match press conference. “I don’t know what sort of game it will be but I hope it will be played in the correct spirit.”

Italy were handed the tough play-off tie against Sweden after finishing second behind Spain in their qualification group. Typically there would be no disgrace in finishing behind the stylish Spaniards, but the uninspiring nature of the Italian qualifying performances did not auger well for an easy ride in the play-offs.

Those fears proved well-founded in the first leg in Stockholm, where Italy went down to a 61st-minute deflected strike from Jakob Johansson. Ventura has been widely criticized for his tactics throughout the qualifying campaign, with seemingly arbitrary changes in formation, often ranging from an all-out attacking stance to a cagey defensive approach.

The Azzurri still have undoubted quality in their ranks, with an assured presence in the form of goalkeeping legend Gianluigi Buffon and younger talent such as midfielder Marco Verratti – although the 25-year-old Paris Saint-Germain star is suspended for tonight’s game in Stockholm.   

While Ventura’s predecessor Antonio Conte guided Italy to the quarter-finals of Euro 2016 – beating Belgium and Spain along the way before going out on penalties to Germany – many felt that the team had overachieved and that the task facing Ventura would be a challenge.

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The last time the Italians failed to qualify for the World Cup was for the 1958 edition, which ironically was held in Sweden. Prior to that, they had only missed the first edition of the event in 1930 in Uruguay, which they did not enter. They last faced a play-off for World Cup qualification 20 years ago, when they narrowly overcame Russia 1-0 on aggregate.

To avoid maintaining their remarkable sequence of World Cup appearances, they face the game against Sweden amid an atmosphere of what ‘keeper Buffon has described as “high tension.”

“We can make no mistakes, we are focusing on what we must do to win but if we fail to qualify everybody should take the blame,” the 39-year-old Juventus player said at the pre-match press conference.

“We are not stressed, personally I am focused on the game and I hope fans will support us. Sweden are a solid side and their behavior will make little difference, it all depends on us.

“We know we can win this game, we dream to qualify for the World Cup, it’s an important game for us and for the history of the national team.

“I’ve already faced similar situations in my career, sometimes I’ve succeeded, some other times I’ve failed. The game means a lot for all of us, not only for me. My situation is not important at the moment. It would be a great satisfaction to qualify for the World Cup.”

The winners of the Italy-Sweden tie will join Switzerland and Croatia as qualifying for Russia 2018 via the European play-offs.

The Swiss followed up a narrow 1-0 first-leg away against Northern Ireland with a 0-0 draw in Basel on Sunday night, while Croatia played out a 0-0 draw with Greece in Athens, but claimed a 4-1 aggregate win thanks to their thumping first-leg victory in Zagreb. Ireland take on Denmark in Dublin on Tuesday, with the tie finely poised at 0-0 after the teams’ draw in Copenhagen on Saturday.