Verdict: Italy win
Best Odds: 8/15
The World Cup playoffs reach a crescendo this weekend as the second-legs of the European fixtures take place. Each and every side has the chance to make it to the World Cup, although some have a better chance than others. However, no side is immune from nerves, and Italy will be hoping that Sweden suffer from them as they travel to the San Siro for the climax to their encounter.
Italy were the side that no team wanted to draw in the playoffs, yet they were incredibly poor against Sweden in the first-leg. Italy went down 1-0 to a Jakob Johansson strike as the favourites took a major blow to their hopes of reaching the World Cup. Of course, there is still a game left to play in the tie, but they must improve drastically if they are to turn the playoff around. In the first-leg, they looked incredibly shaky at the back as Sweden pressed and harried them across the pitch. This meant that the Italians were given no time in midfield, meaning their usual slick passing was nullified completely. This put even more pressure on the Italian defence as they had no options when on the ball, which meant that long clearances were needed, but the lack of cover they had in midfielder only saw the ball almost immediately come back at the three centre-halves. On Monday, the Italians will have to be far better with their ball retention if they are to have a chance of winning the game. As previously mentioned, their inability to keep the ball meant that their defence was under almost constant pressure, while it also meant that their forwards were living on scraps throughout the game, unable to break down the Swede’s resolute defence. In qualifying, Italy managed to win seven games and score 21 goals in the process. While this seemed to count for very little on Friday, the Italians will want to channel their form in qualifying to oust the Swedes and come from behind to take their place at the World cup in Russia next summer.
There are no injuries for the Italians to contend with in the build-up to this must-win game, but they will be without midfielder Marco Verratti after he picked up a yellow card against Sweden that resulted in a suspension.
What a performance it was from the hosts on Friday evening. Sweden were well worth their win on the night as they put in a defensive display that has not been synonymous with the Swedes throughout qualifying. Indeed, they conceded nine times in their 10 games, but they managed to keep an Italian side that had been strong in qualifying at bay. In fact, Italy were kept at arms reach by their hosts, resulting in aimless long balls and speculative shots proving to be their only plan of attack. Sweden will not expect to get such an easy ride on Monday though, with the Italians facing a backlash of astronomical proportions if they do not reach the World Cup. However, the goal the Swedes scored in the first-leg means that they will be able to sit slightly deeper and look to soak up the pressure and hit their hosts on the break. The longer the tie stays at 1-0, the more desperate Italy will become, providing Sweden with even more space to exploit. Sweden will know that a win in Italy is something that few teams expect, but the goal advantage they take away with them could be the difference in the tie.
For Sweden, they will want to change their starting XI as little as they can following a strong performance by each member of the side. Albin Ekdal is suffering from a minor wound, while Swansea’s Martin Olsson has a thigh muscle strain that makes him a doubt for the crunch-match with Italy.
In the last 10 meetings between the two sides, Italy are unbeaten in seven (W6, D1).
Italy have not lost at home against Sweden since 1983.
Italy have not scored more than one goal in a qualifier since their 4-0 win over Liechtenstein back in November 2016.
Sweden’s last away game saw them lose 2-0 to the Netherlands.
Italy have not missed a World Cup since 1958.
Sweden will be full of confidence going into the game and they will look to frustrate Italy and force a similarly difficult night to the one they faced on Friday. However, Italy will be going all out on Monday with their home fans there to roar them on. While they won’t need any extra incentive, the players and fans will know that their legend between the sticks in Gianluigi Buffon retires at the end of the season, and it would be heartbreaking for their talisman if they fail to qualify for a final swansong for one of Italy’s greatest sons.
Verdict: Italy win
Best Odds: 8/15
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