Italy suffer apocalypse after Olsen stands firm to secure Sweden’s place in Russia
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
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.
Sweden players celebrate after securing their place at the World Cup finals next summer, holding off a desperate Italy in Milan