After a very average qualifying campaign which saw Italy finish second to Group D winners Spain, the Azzurri will head to Stockholm to challenge Group A runners up Sweden in a two legged tie that will decide who will be going to Russia next summer.
Italy has not missed a World Cup since 1958 and Gian Piero Ventura’s men hope they are not the side to break this 60 year run. While Sweden proves to be a tougher draw than most fans had hoped for, there is no excuse for the Azzurri not to get past the Scandinavian outfit in the playoff round.
First, here is Italian Football Daily editor Alex Bontorin with his look at ‘the Blues’.
Leading into the tie, it will be interesting to see whether Ventura sticks with his 4-2-4 formation or reverts back to a 3-5-2 which saw Italy have great success in EURO 2016 under Antonio Conte. The 3-5-2 definitely offers more stability to Ventura’s side as it includes three central midfielders. The midfield has been a problem throughout the qualifying campaign as a pairing of De Rossi and Verratti has simply not worked; just look back to Italy’s 3-0 defeat to Spain where they were totally outrun and outworked in the center of the park.
In addition, by reverting back to a 3-5-2, the reintroduction of the former trio of Leonardo Bonucci, Andrea Barzagli, and Giorgio Chiellini (BBC) will add some much needed chemistry among the back line. Yes, this trio is not what it used to be, however they provide much needed grit and experience to a team in need of an uplift.
Ventura has included three new faces in his latest Italy squad; Jorginho (Napoli), Florenzi (Roma), and Simone Zaza (Valencia). All three of these players have the opportunity to contribute in a 3-5-2 formation. Jorginho brings a creative element to a recently dull looking midfield, while Florenzi can slot in on either side of 3-5-2 formation and provide both a defensive and offensive spark on the flanks. Meanwhile, the recall of Zaza gives Ciro Immobile a worthy strike partner to help lighten the load up front while Andrea Belotti continues to work back to full fitness following his return from injury. With both Zaza and Immobile being absolutely on fire so far this season, this presents something for the Sweden defence to think about. With a combined 27 goals in 26 appearances between the two, many will expect this strike duo to be a force to be reckoned with up front.
Projected XI (3-5-2): Buffon; Barzagli, Bonucci, Chiellini; Candreva, Parolo, De Rossi, Verratti, Darmian; Immobile, Zaza
As the Azzurri head into a two legged tie that will decide if they will be flying to Russia next summer, it is important that Ventura doesn’t over complicate things. Away goals may prove to crucial, therefore even if Ventura’s men fall to the Swedes in the first leg, it is absolutely paramount they score some goals in Stockholm.
Heading into the tie, it may be time for Ventura to return to what worked before in order to secure not only a spot in the World Cup, but also his job. While I applaud him for trying to implement his own style, Italy may need to look to the past in order to secure a future a trip to Russia.
Turning our attention to their opponent, here is SempreMilan.com writer and Sweden National Team expert Maxi Generossi with his analysis of the Swedes.
To begin with, this is an entirely different Swedish national team in comparison to the team that have been competing in international competitions during the time epoch of 2009-2016. In 2016, the Swedish Football Association appointed Janne Andersson new manager, replacing previous manager Erik Hamrén. This adjustment in the managerial department meant a re-ignition of the national side. A previously stagnant team transformed into a motivated, effective and productive national team.
The main strength of the Swedes, which simultaneously becomes Gli Azzurri and Ventura’s biggest threat, is Andersson. Andersson’s mind, knowledge and ability to adapt to the outlook of the game and opposition is equal to what you find at managers on elite level. He is an incredibly smart and effective coach when it comes to custom tactics, systems, formations etc. to damage and make it difficult for the opposition. Ventura needs to bring his A-game in order to win the managerial battle against Andersson.
Andersson’s selection is something that is also a perk for the Swedish national team, as he selected a good mixture of experienced manpower with young, hungry and exciting talent. According to myself, this one of the main differences to the previous Sweden managers’ side and one of the reasons to the re-ignition of the national team. Erik Hamrén never took a chance on promising talent and consistently selected the same, experienced players, which never resulted in the flare and sparks young players who’s interested to show what they’ve got and make a name for themselves. Instead, it resulted in the opposite effect in shape of a tired and uninterested national team.
Shifting the focus to the players, there are two players Azzurri need to be aware of, control and neutralize: Emil Forsberg and Marcus Berg.
Forsberg is currently one of the most creative, distinctive and characteristic playmakers in European football, ending last season with most produced assists in the European top leagues. The RB Leipzig playmaker hasn’t started this season out in the same tone as last year. However, make no mistake about it, he still has the same qualities and tendencies to suddenly take over and change a game singlehandedly.
Meanwhile, Berg is the leading goal scorer of the Swedish national team in the group stages and qualifications to the World Cup with 8 goals in 9 games – and 4 goals in 6 games in the UAE Gulf League for his club, Al-Ain, on his resume. Berg might not be the player who contributes much in the build up phase and the offensive part of the game, but again, make no mistake, he’s an experienced striker with lethal and clinical goal scoring abilities. He’s also currently in the form of his life, so surely he’s a big threat to Ventura and Gli Azzurri.
The weaknesses of the Swedish national team that Azzurri need to capitalize on in order to win lies in the quality of the player material. At the same time Sweden hold a few aces in form of Berg, Forsberg and Nilsson-Lindelöf the overall quality of the squad is not on the same level as the Italian’s. The general standard of the player material is substandard to Italy in all parts of the team. The midfield has, at times in the qualifications, looked flawed, but defensively, have consistently looked secured and balanced, with the exception of Bulgaria away; the strikers have produced well. Nevertheless, on paper, they don’t stack themselves very highly to the Italian player material. Noteworthy though is that the Swedes have had problems handling pressure at times, which could work in Italy’s favor with the play-offs conveying just that, pressure.
Projected XI (4-4-2): Olsen; Krafth, Lindelof, Granqvist, Augustinsson; Claesson, Larsson, Johansson, Forsberg; Toivonen, Berg.
In conclusion, on paper there, shouldn’t really be a tough set of matches for Italy. However, Sweden can no doubt give them a run for their money currently finding themselves in marvelous form.