How they lined up
Italy (3-5-2): Buffon, Barzagli, Bonucci, Chiellini, Candreva, Parolo, De Rossi, Giaccherini, Florenzi, Pellé, Éder
Sweden (4-4-2): Isaksson, Lindelöf, Johansson, Granqvist, Olsson, Larsson, Ekdal, Källström, Forsberg, Guidetti, Ibrahimović
Result: Italy 1-0 Sweden
They say that it’s always hard to make a sequel to a great film. When a production team has caught lightning in a bottle and created a fresh, original and exciting movie the public love it. But then comes the problem of replicating that success. When Italy beat Belgium 2-0 in Lyon, Antonio Conte had caught that lightning in a bottle. His side outmanoeuvred and outwitted a star-studded Belgian team to snatch three incredibly valuable points, but the real worry for the Azzurri from then onwards was to make sure that it wouldn’t just be a flash in the pan.
It’s telling that Italy haven’t won their second match in any of the last seven major tournaments they have competed at. Two years ago at the World Cup Italy saw off a bright England side in their opener, but then went and lost 1-0 to Costa Rica just six days later. This time round Conte needed to make sure that the frailness of the past would stay there.
Italy set up once more in the familiar 3-5-2 formation, with Conte’s only change coming in the form of Alessandro Florenzi slotting in on the right-hand-side in place of Matteo Darmian. Against Belgium, from kick-off Italy instantly took the game to their opposition by relentlessly pressing when off the ball and pushing up with speed and fervency. Against Sweden, although they defended with a similar level of zeal, when looking to create chances of their own they never seemed to click. Visibly frustrated by his side’s failure to create any clear cut chances, Conte hauled off Graziano Pellé on 60 minutes for Simone Zaza, with the striker’s hold-up play failing to get Italy going in the final-third.
In a rather monotonous first-half, Italy had just one shot on target and spent much of it camped behind the ball looking to fend off the advances of Sweden, who themselves failed to create more than just two shots on goal, with both failing to work Gianluigi Buffon.
Despite needing the win, rather than looking to take the game to Italy, Sweden slipped into a position of comfort and sat deep. This didn’t stop Italy from creating a few sparse chances, but it severely hindered the use of Giaccherini and Éder’s pace, which Italy had used against Belgium to get in behind the defensive line. Sweden had clearly recognised that this would be how Italy would look to get at them, but in doing so it also led to a bogged down game, with both teams attempting to build from the back in a conservative manner.
As the game drew closer to full-time, it was Italy who were in the ascension. The Azzurri were finding more joy down the wings, and almost took the lead in the 81st minute when Marco Parolo headed the ball onto the top of the crossbar, from a ball in by Giaccherini on the left-hand-side. Six minutes later, down the left once more, Italy found their winner. A long throw from Chiellini was headed into the path of the maundering Éder by Zaza, who then burst past the sprawling Swedish defenders and fired his effort out of the reach of Isaksson and into the corner of the goal.
In a parallel with the match against Belgium, it was a player much maligned for his selection that came up with the big moment for the Azzurri. Following in the footsteps of Giaccherini, Éder made the difference for Italy and secured the side’s progression to the Round of 16.
Many of Sweden’s problems throughout the match stemmed from the fact that if Ibrahimović became isolated and shut down, then Sweden had very little to fall back onto. Although Ibrahimović can be a terrifying threat for many defenders, Italy’s experienced back three of Barzagli, Bonucci and Chiellini dealt with him superbly. By constantly pressing him when on the ball and shutting down his striking partners, Guidetti and Berg (from the 85th minute), this forced Ibrahimović to rush his decisions and left him isolated.
Although Italy are now winners of Group E and through to the Round of 16, going on their performance you could take both a glass half full or a glass half empty perspective. Despite winning, the Azzurri were very conservative in how they played and failed to force themselves upon a rather poor Sweden team. However, you could take the view that despite not playing brilliantly, Italy still emerged with all three points, which shows the commonplace attributes of winners; character, resilience and determination.
Up next for the Azzurri are Ireland, a side coming off the back of a 3-0 loss to Belgium. Whatever the result, Italy will finish the top of Group E, but a poor performance in a tournament environment such as this could be detrimental to the confidence of the side. Ireland desperately need to win the match if they stand any hope of squeezing into the the next round, so expect a hard fought match with one team having much more at stake than the other.