Italy suf­fer apoca­lypse af­ter Olsen stands firm to se­cure Swe­den’s place in Rus­sia

The Guardian - Sport - - World Cup Play-offs Football -


0 0 Given one last chance to seize a place at next year’s World Cup Italy pro­duced a sig­nif­i­cantly im­proved performance but could not man­u­fac­ture the goals they needed to over­turn Swe­den’s first-leg ad­van­tage and win their qual­i­fy­ing play­off. They pressed, they pushed, but they could not pre­vail, and as a re­sult will miss out on next year’s tour­na­ment in Rus­sia, their first such fail­ure in six decades.

“All or noth­ing,” had screamed the front page of the Gazzetta dello Sport, which car­ried a pic­ture of Italy’s be­lea­guered coach, Gian Piero Ven­tura, look­ing to the heavens. Carlo Tavec­chio, pres­i­dent of the Ital­ian FA, fa­mously said in Septem­ber that “not qual­i­fy­ing would be an apoca­lypse”. At that stage Italy were still op­ti­mistic: “I’m still sure we can qual­ify for the World Cup,” Ven­tura said, “and we are not think­ing about the apoca­lypse”. It is some­thing the en­tire coun­try must now con­front. Their team mas­sively dom­i­nated pos­ses­sion but could find no way past the vis­i­tors’ de­ter­mined rear­guard: the four Norse men of the apoca­lypse.

If the build-up was tense and emo­tional, the at­mos­phere inside the San Siro was equally febrile. Swe­den’s an­them was pro­foundly dis­re­spected by the ma­jor­ity of those present, who whis­tled through­out. Gian­luigi Buf­fon ap­plauded wildly, pre­sum­ably in solo protest against his own sup­port­ers’ bile.

The game was as in­tense as its buildup. Within 10 min­utes a player from each side had been booked; within 30 there had been three rea­son­able penalty ap­peals, all re­jected. There had been pres­sure on the ref­eree, An­to­nio Ma­teu La­hoz, af­ter Ven­tura crit­i­cised Cuneyt Cakir, the Turk­ish of­fi­cial who took charge of the first leg, and de­manded that “we get at the San Siro what they got in Stock­holm”. The Ital­ian would cer­tainly have been dis­grun­tled when An­dreas Gran­qvist seemed to trip Marco Parolo in the penalty area af­ter nine min­utes, though Mat­teo Darmian and An­drea Barza­gli both got away with hand­balls at the other end.

For this fi­nal roll of the dice Ven­tura fi­nally turned to Jorginho, the Napoli mid­fielder who had pre­vi­ously played 24 min­utes of se­nior in­ter­na­tional foot­ball and had not been con­sid­ered wor­thy of a place in the squad since last May, 20 in­ter­na­tional matches ago. As he did last sea­son, Napoli’s Brazil-born mid­field ful­crum has played more passes per game than any other player not just in Serie A but any of Europe’s major leagues, but Ven­tura had pre­vi­ously dis­missed him as a spe­cial­ist in “a role that does not ex­ist” in his side. Now it was time to cre­ate one.

Jorginho pro­vided the out­stand­ing mo­ments of the first half, first by lift­ing a per­fectly-judged pass over Swe­den’s de­fence and into the path of Manolo Gab­bia­dini, whose low cross zipped through a crowded six-yard box be­fore be­ing bat­tered over the bar by An­to­nio Can­dreva. Then in the 40th minute he picked out Ciro Im­mo­bile, whose shot hit the on­rush­ing Robin Olsen but con­tin­ued on its path goal­wards un­til Gran­qvist booted clear.

The 25-year-old Jorginho was one of three changes to the team that had started in Stock­holm, with Torino’s An­drea Belotti, who played the first 65 min­utes of the first leg and touched the ball five times, re­placed by Southamp­ton’s Gab­bia­dini, and Roma’s Alessan­dro Florenzi pre­ferred to his club col­league Daniele De Rossi.

Swe­den made two changes, Emil Krafth and the in­jured Al­bin Ek­dal mak­ing way for Celtic’s Mikael Lustig and Jakob Jo­hans­son. It was Jo­hans­son’s goal from the first leg that di­vided the sides but de­spite the fi­nal re­sult he will re­mem­ber this match with less fond­ness: in the 17th minute he stretched for a bounc­ing ball in an empty cen­tre cir­cle and his left knee buck­led; he left the field on a stretcher.

Other than the penalty ap­peals Swe­den never threat­ened. They were con­tent to crowd the cen­tral ar­eas, al­low­ing Darmian and Can­dreva space on the flanks, re­ly­ing on their abil­ity to reach any cross first, and boot­ing any ball they got within touch­ing dis­tance of up­field.

Two min­utes into the sec­ond half the Ital­ian wide play­ers com­bined, Can­dreva

Italy 3-5-2

Buf­fon; Barza­gli■, Bonucci, Chiellini■; Florenzi, Can­dreva (Ber­nade­schi■, 76), Jorginho, Parolo, Darmian (El Shaarawy, 63); Gab­bia­dini (Belotti, 63), Im­mo­bile■.

Subs not used Donnarumma, Ru­gani, As­tori, Gagliar­dini, In­signe, Perin, De Rossi, Éder, Zap­pa­costa. Olsen■; Lustig■, Lin­de­lof, Gran­qvist, Au­gustins­son; Claes­son (Ro­hden, 72), Lars­son, Jo­hans­son■, Fors­berg■ (Svens­son, 19); Toivo­nen (The­lin■, 54); Berg. Subs not used

Johns­son, Nord­feldt, Ols­son, Guidetti, He­lander, Krafth, Jans­son, Dur­maz, Sema. Ref­eree A La­hoz (Sp) cross­ing and Darmian, at the far post, con­trol­ling. Lustig at­tempted to kick the ball clear, missed and kneed the Manch­ester United de­fender in the stom­ach but Ma­teu La­hoz had sud­denly dis­cov­ered the abil­ity to spot hand­balls and gave a free-kick, par­tic­u­larly sur­pris­ing since the ball seemed to have hit Darmian on the thigh.

The pres­sure con­tin­ued, but Swe­den’s de­fence re­mained solid. The clos­est Italy came to an ac­tual goal was when Florenzi crossed and Lustig’s header looped on to his own bar. Swe­den de­fended their nar­row lead un­til the last, a feat that for all their pain Ital­ians should surely ap­pre­ci­ate.

Luca Bruno/AP

Swe­den play­ers cel­e­brate af­ter se­cur­ing their place at the World Cup fi­nals next sum­mer, hold­ing off a des­per­ate Italy in Mi­lan

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