Sweden secured a slender advantage from the first leg of their World Cup play-off against Italy after a 1-0 victory in Stockholm on Friday.
“The result changes nothing. Today we could’ve done more and done it better, but there’s a lot at stake over the 180 minutes,” Giampiero Ventura said in his post-match conference. The under-fire Italian coach felt his side had been unlucky – a mixture of refereeing decisions and Sweden’s strong physical approach limited the Italian’s performance. Yet captain Gianluigi Buffon – who faces the prospect of Monday’s second-leg in Milan being his last in the Azzurri colours – seemed to oppose many of Ventura’s post-match comments by saying, “the first rule of international football is not to feel sorry for yourself – it was a very physical game and the referee officiated in an English style.” Whoever you agree with, there is no denying that Italy produced a disappointing display.
The single goal of the match – a deflected Jakob Johansson strike in the 61st minute – put Sweden in the driving seat and has made the unthinkable prospect of Italy missing next year’s finals a distinct possibility. The closest Italy came to a goal in Stockholm was through Matteo Darmian who rattled the post from long-range in front of his club manager, Jose Mourinho, who was watching from the stands. The Italians lacked invention and failed to break down a stubborn Swedish backline.
The Swedes were the better team on the night – started the match with a high-energy tempo and showed plenty of aggression in their attacks. Physicality played a major role in their approach and this unsettled the Italians. Striker Marcus Berg, who scored eight goals in qualifying, was booked within 50 seconds. Ola Toivonen appeared to elbow Leonardo Bonucci in the face with the Italian defender saying post-match that the challenge had fractured his nose.
That intensity continued for much of the first-half. The noisy home crowd were behind their team – loudly booing Bonucci whenever he was on the ball. Most of the chances in the opening half fell to the hosts – with six shots to Italy’s one. Emil Forsberg of RB Leipzig – who is seen as Sweden’s leading light post-Imbrahimovic – impressed on the left side and curled a 25-yard shot wide of the post. Buffon was forced to make a number of reflex saves to deny Berg and Toivonen and keep his side level going into the break.
Sweden were more subdued in the second period with the Italians improving slightly but substitute Johansson’s goal, after barely four minutes on the pitch, gave the hosts the lead that they deserved. Johansson’s powerful strike cannoned off the torso of Daniele de Rossi and the deflection was enough to wrong-foot Buffon, with the ball rolling inside his near post.
Italy never really rallied – and aside from Darmian’s rasping effort, Robin Olsen’s goal was barely threatened despite the amount of Italian possession. Saturday morning’s headline in Gazzetta della Sport exclaimed: ‘Italy: Ugly and Confused’ and much of the fury will fall at the feet of coach Ventura, who once again failed to find room in his 3-5-2 formation for in-form Napoli winger Lorenzo Insigne, and his front two – Belotti and Immobile – did not click at all. The former Torino manager has not had an enjoyable time as coach of the national side thus far – his tactical set-up against Spain in September drew plenty of criticism and saw Italy out-played and embarrassed in Madrid. There is even talk that if Italy do make the World Cup Finals, Ventura won’t be in Russia with them.
However, for Italians to even start thinking about next summer, there has to be an improved performance in the second-leg. Bonucci conceded, “We have to be quicker on the ball – in the return leg, we have to really fight.” With the away goal rule counting in the World Cup playoffs, a Swedish goal at the Guiseppe Meazza stadium would leave the Azzurri needing to score three times. The pressure will certainly be on in Monday’s must-win match in Milan.