Italy lost 0-1 to Sweden in the first leg of their World Cup playoff match, making their road to Russia extremely complicated. While the goal that put the Suedes ahead originated from a Daniele De Rossi’s unfortunate deflection on a shot by Jakob Johansson, the Azzurri never gave the impression of being able to pose any real threat to the opponents’ goal.
This is the most relevant and disappointing trend emerging from tonight’s game, with coach Giampiero Ventura once again failing to spark a killer instinct in a team that will definitely not pass to history as the best Italy ever lined up – but should still be more than enough to overcome a Nordic side orphan of Zlatan Ibrahimovic.
The Swedish totem was indeed present at the Friends Arena of Solna tonight, if only as a spectator: The image of Zlatan towering in the stands, hands-on-hips, at full time is the perfect image of a Sweden squad that stuck their chests out, and took the game over relying on tactical organization and physical superiority.
Play was rough and tough, with a few actions going close to the edge, especially on the part of forward Marcus Berg – whom, with all due respect, plays in the UAE for Al-Ain: that tells much about the Azzurri’s difficulties with coping with tonight’s opponents, a problem that seems indeed to be related to attitude and mindset. You don’t want to see players like Leonardo Bonucci or Daniele De Rossi – not exactly two weaklings – looking for simulation whenever Berg or some teammate raised their elbows, for crying out loud!
And while luck was not on the Azzurri’s side from even before the match start, with striker Simone Zaza forced to miss the battle due to an injury, one could wonder what difference would that have made – considering that forwards Ciro Immobile and Andrea Belotti were served with just one single valid pass in the full first half. A cross by Matteo Darmian, one of the very few to be saved tonight among Italy, was caught by Torino’s striker for a header that narrowly missed the goal target.
Before and after Belotti’s lone attempt, the first half was a Swedish monologue, with the Azzurri struggling to contain pressure from a team that, on top of a relevant physical advantage, found in aggressiveness and support from the 50000 attendants at the Friends Arena the added value. Marco Verratti received a yellow card for an evitable foul on Berg, which will force him to miss the 2nd leg match in Milan. If the Pescara-born playmaker is the one seen tonight – once again much below his expected average – one could ask whether this is really a disgrace.
A double save by Gianluigi Buffon stopped an all-present Berg, after a shot by Ola Toivonen had ended dangerously close to the goal post defended by Juventus’ goalie. When referee Cuneyt Cakir sent the 22 for a break, the impression was indeed that a Swedish lead would not have sounded unfair.
It took Sweden eventually breaking the balance for Italy to wake up, and start showing at least some determination. Scoring for the Nordics took the unexpected features of defender Jakob Johansson, who had just stepped foot on the pitch to replace injured Martin Ekdal. A throw-in from the right side produced a flank-play by Toivonen, who served Johansson out of the box.
Who was supposed to mark the Swedish new joiner? We’ll probably never know, yet Johansson happened to be left free to deliver a clumsy shot, which an unfortunate deflection by Daniele De Rossi sent into the Azzurri’s net.
Coach Ventura tried to resort to historical precedents, sending in Eder who had knocked Sweden down with his lone goal at Euro 2016, then also gave some space to Lorenzo Insigne. None of them managed to change the trend, the only serious chance coming from a violent shot by Matteo Darmian – whom hit the post so hard and loudly that you would think the goal was placed in your living room.
At that point, Swedish trainer Janne Andersson realized that a key result was within reach for his side and ordered to cover up, and prevent the Azzurri from fare gioco – a task that didn’t require an extreme effort, to tell the truth. Despite five extra minutes of play, goalkeeper Robin Olsen did not run any more risk. Ventura spent the last few minutes nervously pacing around his technical area, as home supporters on the stands mockingly chanted Seven Nation Army – a tune made famous by the Azzurri’s victory at World Cup 2006.
It will take Italy a two-goal margin win in the 2nd leg match, to come out of the nightmare of missing their first World Cup since 1958 – and, frankly, the squad seen tonight does not look capable of scoring two goals to a solid, albeit technically inferior opponent. Ventura has three days to have his men look at themselves in the mirror and found the crux of the matter that seems to be haunting Italy since their 0-3 debacle against Spain.
“So, what are you doing next Summer?” was the most frequently asked question among Italian fans in the minutes right after the Solna match ended – showing how much confidence local supporters are having in their Nazionale.
We are not famous for being good at making plans in advance, but we surely wouldn’t welcome a painful chance to start learning now.
SCORER: 62’ J. Johansson
SWEDEN (4-4-2): Olsen; Krafth (83’ Svensson), Lindelof, Granqvist, Augustinsson; Claesson, S. Larsson, Ekdal (57’ J. Johansson), Forsberg; Berg (74’ Thelin), Toivonen. (Nordfeldt, K. Johansson, J. Larsson, Jansson, Olsson, Helander, Rodhen, Sema, Guidetti). Coach: Andersson
ITALY (3-5-2): Buffon; Barzagli, Bonucci, Chiellini; Candreva, Parolo, De Rossi, Verratti (76’ Insigne), Darmian; Immobile, Belotti (65’ Eder). (Donnarumma, Perin, Rugani, Astori, Zappacosta, Florenzi, Gagliardini, Jorginho, Bernardeschi, Gabbiadini). Coach: Ventura
REFEREE: Cakir (Turkey)
NOTES: Attendance: 49.193; Yellow Cards: Berg, Toivonen (S), Verratti (I); Extra Time: 1st Half 1’, 2nd Half 5’
Feature Photo Credit: AFP Photo