Sweden Qualify for Russia at the Expense of Mediocre Italy

Sweden beat Italy 1-0 on aggregate to reach the World Cup 2018 in Russia. Italy failed to score even once against their stubborn opponents in Milan to fall short. It is the first time since 1958 that the Azzurri will be missing a World Cup place competing for the biggest honour. The 2006 world champions now have a big overhaul to do as four of their stalwarts – including Gianluigi Buffon – announced their retirement post-match. The Swedes qualified for the big tournament for the first time since 2006, marking the beginning of their post-Zlatan era in style.

Despite both games being low scoring affairs, the entertainment and high intensity was never in doubt. The second leg in Milan began with early pressure from the home side which was expected after their away defeat. Sweden didn’t press the build-ups much and were happy to sit in their shape – a deep 4-4-2 – patiently waiting for the counter-attacks. The first of four denied penalty claims came from Italy’s side when Marco Parolo was brought down by Andreas Granqvist and surprisingly, the referee thought the player got the ball. Giorgio Chiellini was then booked for dissent as the ref tried to stamp his authority on the game.

Not long after, it was Sweden’s turn to claim handball inside the box. A quick counter-attack opened Italy up and Marcus Berg tried to play a pass through Matteo Darmian who as seen in blocked the pass with his hand in an unnatural position. The referee had a good look at it and deemed it unworthy of a penalty.

The first big chance fell to Ciro Immobile when a wonderful pass from Jorginho exploited the space in between centre-back and fullback. The only thing lacking was a bit of extra pace on the pass and better control from the striker. A poke towards the side-netting was all he could muster.

The pressure was mounting as the home team began to tighten the screw, racking up crosses and looking for killer balls. Another massive opportunity arrived in the 27th minute when Alessandro Florenzi played a clever chipped ball in behind Sweden’s defence. Immobile did well to keep it under control and get a low cross which couldn’t find Manolo Gabbiadini. The ball then ricocheted off a defender and fell nicely to Antonio Candreva who just blasted it over the bar.

A few moments later, a poor square ball from Andrea Barzagli opened Italy up with Emil Forsberg getting on the end of the pass to start a counter. He tried to poke a pass through which was blocked by the culprit defender with his hand again being in an unnatural position. The Swedes – especially Forsberg – were convinced about the case, but as the replays suggested, the referee was blocked as he stood on the opposite side. Forsberg was then booked for an extra show of dissent.

Just as half-time neared, another Jorginho pass in behind the Swedish defence was latched onto by Immobile. His shot was well saved by an out-rushing Robin Olsen with his legs and the squeezed shot was cleared off the line by Granqvist. This was the last chance of a tense first half where the pattern was already set for the second period.

The last of the four penalty claims arrived early in the second half when a clipped ball towards Darmian was controlled and Mikael Lustig caught the wing-back with his knee. However, the referee deemed a foul before the infraction, as the Italian controlled the ball with his hand.

Moments later, a good flat cross from the left side towards Florenzi was well hit first time, only to miss the post by a whisker. At this point in time, the pressure was cranked up a notch with Sweden really defending for their lives. Italy kept lacking the cutting edge with creativity and had to rely on good crosses from wide areas.

In the later stages, shots from Andrea Belotti, Stephan El Shaaraway and Parolo didn’t threaten the Swedish goal much. Robin Olsen was in the way of one and watched the other two fly past the post.

Manager Gian Piero Ventura’s subs were controversial, to say the least: he kept Lorenzo Insigne out of the action, presumably because he may not be useful in his preferred 3-5-2 system. The 69-year old did well to start with Gabbiadini in a vague number 10 role, but the striker couldn’t provide much creativity apart from laying the ball in wide areas and hoping for good crosses. The incision came from Jorginho at times, but it was too inconsistent to crack open the stubborn Swedish defence.

The use of three centre-backs for the whole 90 minutes was another soft move. Sweden never really threatened to score and replacing one of the centre-backs (notably Leonardo Bonucci who was struggling with an injury) with Insigne could have made a difference, but the manager thought otherwise and the rewards never came. In the end, the result was the catalyst for a sad moment for all the Italian faithful, as Daniele De Rossi joined fellow stalwarts Chiellini, Barzagli and Buffon in retiring from international football.