Italy started the UEFA World Cup Qualifying Playoff Round against Sweden as massive favourites to go through to the 2018 FIFA World Cup. However, things got quite complicated out of nowhere for one of the biggest countries in the UEFA region. Thanks to a disciplined effort on both ends of the pitch, Sweden escaped with a 1-0 win at Friends Arena in Stockholm, Sweden. The hosts now have the edge heading into the second leg to be played next week in Giuseppe Meazza Stadium in Milan.
Here are four things we learned about this game.
Sweden Undoubtedly Deserved The Win
Prior to kick-off one would have thought Italy had a clear edge based on the strength of each squad. And while Italy certainly looked better early on and came close to score with a header from Andrea Belotti that went inches wide, the reality is that Sweden were the better team overall and they deserved the win.
One of the main reasons why Sweden ended winning fairly was the performance of their midfielders. Emil Forsberg was a constant threat on the left wing, while Viktor Claesson cooperated on the opposite flank. But two of the best players for Sweden were Albin Ekdal and Sebastian Larsson. The duo of central midfielders annulled Marco Verratti and limited Italy’s playmaking abilities in the final third. Ekdal also looked quite accurate going forward, as he constantly appeared in attacking position when the Swedes had possession.
Sweden also had the edge on shots on goal three to two, and scored the lone goal of the game. It was an utterly dominant performance. But they did everything they needed to do to build what – at least on paper – looked like an improbable advantage in the first half.
Sweden Had The Answer On The Bench
Not many experts would have considered Jakob Johansson as a player that could have changed the game for Sweden, but that’s exactly what happened. The 27-year-old midfielder plays for AIK Solna in the Swedish Allsvenskan and even though he had played regularly in Sweden’s recent World Cup Qualifying matches, no one expected him to be the star of the game against Italy.
Johansson came off the bench in the 57th minute to replace Ekdal due to injury, and only needed a few minutes to leave a mark Swedish fans won’t forget easily. Ola Toivonen nodded a ball inside the box following a throw-in, and the ball fell straight to Johansson. The AIK star blasted a shot on target, and his effort took a deflection in an opposing defenders. That was enough to place it past Gianluigi Buffon, and the goal was the play that defined the game for both sides. It wasn’t the prettiest goal, but it could very well mean a World Cup spot for Sweden if they can hold on in the second leg.
Italy were quite disappointing on the attacking end
As we mentioned above, Italy had a clear scoring chance quite early when Belotti met a cross from Matteo Darmian, but the striker’s effort went inches wide. Italian supporters quickly began to imagine an Italian side playing with pace and pushing the lines forward, but that wasn’t the case. In fact, Italy struggled to create chances after that play, and they barely threatened the opposing defence during the remainder of the game. Aside from the Belotti header, Robin Olsen warmed up his hands with a shot from Antonio Candreva and saw how Darmian smashed the post 71st minute.
Needless to say, that wasn’t what most experts – and fans – expected from Italy. Considering their wealth of attacking options, Giampiero Ventura’s men should have done a better job and at the very least, they should have created far more chances. The entrances of Lorenzo Insigne and Eder during the second half didn’t exactly help, either. Ventura needs to change his tactic and soon, because this kind of sloppy effort on the attacking end is not going to cut it even if they play at home next week.
How Should Italy Replace Marco Verratti Next Week?
As if being 0-1 down on the aggregate score wasn’t enough, Italy will have to find a way to replace Marco Verratti. The PSG star midfielder received a yellow card in the 29th minute, and he will be suspended for the second leg as a result. He will be the only absence for Italy, but Verratti plays a key role in Ventura’s tactical system. And replacing him is not going to be easy.
Ventura has options, though. Jorginho and Roberto Gagliardini have the inside track to start, but both have different playing styles. The Inter Milan player profiles better based on his characteristics if the head coach wants a similar player to Verratti, while the Napoli playmaker thrives on a more attacking stance. Whoever starts will probably slot alongside Danielle De Rossi and Marco Parolo, but considering what Italy needs, it wouldn’t be surprising a tactical overhaul with only two CMs and another more attacking-minded player like Insigne on the wing.
Whatever the case is, Ventura MUST do something. Italy have their backs against the wall and must perform much better in the second leg if they want to avoid missing out on the World Cup for the first time since the 1958 edition.
Sweden: Olsen (7); Krafth (6) (Svensson (-), 83′), Lindelöf (6), Granqvist (7), Augustinsson (7); Claesson (7), Ekdal (6) (Johansson (7), 57′), Larsson (6), Forsberg (8); Toivonen (6), Berg (5) (Thelin (-), 75′)
Italy: Buffon (6); Barzagli (6), Bonucci (7), Chiellini (6); Candreva (6), Parolo (5), De Rossi (5), Verratti (6) (Insigne (-), 76′), Darmian (7); Belotti (5) (Eder (5), 65′), Immobile (5)
Goals: Johansson (1-0, 61′)
Referee: Cuneyt Cakir (Turkey)
Yellow Cards: Berg (SWE, 1′), Verratti (ITA, 28′)
Red Cards: None
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