It was not quite the classic game many had hoped for, but viewers were also spared a cagey and dull affair in Sweden. The home side snatched the lead through Jakob Johansson and, despite Italy dominating the ball, the visitors were unable to get anywhere near Sweden’s goal.
The first-half saw the usually watertight Italian defence creaking under pressure as Sweden chased every pass and forced a number of mistakes from the experienced backline of the visitors. However, there was no breakthrough. The teams returned for the second-half and Italy came out looking far stronger, but it was the Swedes that took the lead through a deflected strike from Johansson. As far as goals were concerned, that was that. Italy dominated the closing stages with the ball but failed to carve out any real chances, and they are now under huge pressure to perform in the second-leg.
For Sweden, they are now just 90 minutes away from the World Cup, with Italy facing elimination before the tournament even starts. Of course, there is still the small matter of Sweden going to Italy, but things must change for the Italians, otherwise, it will be much of the same yet again.
From Swedens victory, what five things did we learn?
A fiery opening 20 minutes
Whoever claimed that all World Cup playoffs were tight and cagey affairs in the opening exchanges was proved very wrong by this game. Sweden immediately launched a long-ball forward from kick-off as they looked to attack their visitors and put them under a considerable amount of pressure.
The Swedes looked to get in the faces of Italy’s very experienced defence as they harried and pressed the ball. This led to a number of misplaced passes and poor clearances that allowed the home fans to get behind their own team. However, the first real chance of the game went to Italy, as Andrea Belotti lost his marker in the box and headed just wide.
Sweden had their own chances, the best of which fell to Emil Forsberg after some good work from his teammates, he found himself one-on-one with Gianluigi Buffon, but his shot was saved by the goalkeeper as the flag was raised by the assistant for offside.
In last night’s playoff between Northern Ireland and Switzerland, the opening 20 minutes saw few chances with both sides looking to stay compact, as they were terrified of losing the game with the first few kicks of the ball. There was no such worry between Sweden and Italy though, with both sides looking to attack whenever they could, with shots flying at each of the goals. This is how a playoff should be played.
The Italian defence does not look so secure
For so many years the Italians have been lauded for their outstanding defence and ability to ride out any storm, no matter how bad. However, in qualifying, they conceded eight times in 10 games, a figure not akin to that classic defensive solidity of old. Indeed, the likes of Germany, England, Spain, Portugal and Belgium all conceded fewer goals, with the apparent invincibility of their backline wavering.
Against Sweden, they looked very shaky in the opening stages as their hosts pressed them very high. This meant that the ageing legs of Giorgio Chiellini, Leonardo Bonucci and Andrea Barzagli looked unsure, with the hugely experienced trio making uncharacteristic mistakes.
The best example of their struggles came as a long ball over the top fell to Chiellini, who let the ball bounce between himself and Gianluigi Buffon, with the two put under pressure forcing the goalkeeper into action. After making the initial save with his hip, the veteran ‘keeper had to be as agile as a man half his age, racing out to the loose ball to claw it away from Ola Toivonen’s feet. The home fans and players screamed for a penalty, but the goalkeeper had gotten his decision making and action spot on.
However, the awful defending, the reliance on Buffon, and the roars of the crowd will have had Chiellini’s heart in his mouth, something he will not be all that used to.
Italy make a point in the second-half, but still go behind
Italy would not have been surprised to have seen themselves go in a goal down at half-time following a very good first 45 from Sweden. Indeed, the best chances of the half fell to the hosts as the Italians looked very nervous at the back, while they were unable to control the ball in the middle, while passes would not stick at the feet of their front-men.
However, something was obviously said at half-time in the Italian dressing room, and they came out a different team. From the whistle they looked to pressure their hosts and remain composed on the ball, helping to relieve the pressure on their creaking defence.
A number of corners ensued, possession was kept and the pressure was transferred from the shoulders of the visitors to their hosts. It was a completely different Italian side that took to the pitch in the second-half and they were able to apply themselves in a way in which they struggled to throughout the entirety of the first-half.
However, after a period of broken play due to fouls and yellow cards, a strike from Jakob Johansson that was deflected, left Buffon with no chance whatsoever and nestled in the back of the net. The Swede was able to keep his strike down as he sent it towards a cluster of players, deflecting off Daniele De Rossi, and the rest is history. The opening goal was the perfect example of a side staying in the game as Sweden had been doing in the second-half, and then snatching a chance.
Italy look toothless going forward
After Italy went a goal down, the neutral fan would have been rubbing their hands together, assuming that the visitors would now have to push forward and attack more, with Sweden looking to defend and hit Italy on the break. However, a consistent period of Italian domination did not result in any form of chances.
Italy had gone past the 60% mark for possession in the game with five minutes to go, but the side that actually had something to show had registered less than 40% of the ball. It was the time old lesson that keeping the ball for most of the game does not always win a team the match.
Indeed, everything seemed rather safe from Italy in the closing stages. The ball would be passed to the centre-halves, they would move it out wide, the ball would then be passed infield, with the midfielder then using the other flank, and repeat. Honestly, Sweden did not ever really look stretched in defence as Italy failed to inspire going forward.
Lorenzo Insigne added a pace and tenacity to the left-flank, but his teammates seemed bereft of ideas. Aimless long balls forward were a feature of Italy’s so-called attack, with their forwards suffocated by their host’s compact defence. In truth, Italy’s woes were summed up by Ciro Immobile’s speculative swivel and strike that almost went out for a throw-in. The Italians will be under a huge amount of pressure when they welcome Sweden to the San Siro for the return leg, and if they do not improve their attack by the next game, then they will miss out on the World Cup.
Sweden put one foot in the World Cup
It was an outstanding defensive display from a side not renowned for their ability at the back as Sweden claimed a famous win. While conceding nine goals in 10 games is hardly a stat that will horrify those that are more inclined to the defensive side of the game, it shows that Sweden are hardly the most defensively sound of teams.
However, they put in a defensive performance that the Italians themselves would have been proud of. Italy looked toothless going forward, but Sweden’s four-man defence held firm throughout, and they should be credited for keeping their opponents to speculative punts forward and playing the ball around some way from Sweden’s goal.
The flow of the game swung from one team to the other across the two-halves, with Sweden dominating the first, and Italy the second. However, the goal meant the dynamic of the game completely changed as Italy knew they had to get forward or face a much tougher test on their home turf in the second-leg.
Sweden will know that it is only half-time in the playoff and there is still a lot of football to play, and their opponents have supreme pedigree at winning games when they have not played well. The atmosphere in the San Siro will be a vociferous one, and any single mistake by the Swedes will be pounced upon by the Italian players and fans. However, it was a very professional display from the home side on Friday evening, and they will know that they are just a single strong performance away from securing a place at the World Cup in Russia next summer.
Sweden: Olsen 6 – Augustinsson 7, Lindelof 8, Granqvist 8, Krafth 7 (Svensson 7)- Forsberg 8, Ekdal 7 (Johansson 7), Larsson 7, Claesson 7 – Berg 7 (Thelin 7), Toivonen 7.
Unused subs: Johnsson, Nordfeldt, Larsson, Olsson, Guidetti, Helander, Jansson, Rohden, Sema.
Italy: Buffon 6 – Chiellini 5, Bonucci 6, Barzagli 6 – Darmian 7, Verratti 6 (Insigne 7), De Rossi 6, Parolo 6, Candreva 6 – Immobile 5, Belotti 5 (Eder 5).
Unused subs: Donnarumma, Perin, Rugani, Gagliardini, Florenzi, Astori, Jorginho, Bernardeschi, Zappacosta, Gabbiadini.
Referee: Cuneyt Cakir
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