Thursday 19 July 2018

Swedish stalemate spells end of the world for Italy

Italy 0 Sweden 0

Gianluigi Buffon waves goodbye to international football after Italy's World Cup hopes were ended by play-off defeat to Sweden following a 0-0 second leg draw. Photo by Marco Luzzani/Getty Images
Gianluigi Buffon waves goodbye to international football after Italy's World Cup hopes were ended by play-off defeat to Sweden following a 0-0 second leg draw. Photo by Marco Luzzani/Getty Images

Ben Findon

Italy will be absent from the World Cup for the first time in 60 years after a long night of frustration ended in an ocean of tears in Milan.

Trailing 1-0 from last Friday's first leg in Stockholm, they were unable to break down a resolute Sweden who held out magnificently to earn themselves a place in the World Cup draw on December 1.

Italy’s Marco Parolo in action with Sweden’s Sebastian Larsson. Photo: Reuters/Alessandro Garofalo
Italy’s Marco Parolo in action with Sweden’s Sebastian Larsson. Photo: Reuters/Alessandro Garofalo

There were emotional scenes at the end as the Swedes celebrated one of their greatest achievements in modern times. In stark contrast, the Italian players looked inconsolable, none more so than veteran goalkeeper Gianluigi Buffon, who will retire this summer without the crowning moment of a World Cup swansong.

Buffon said: "I'm not sorry for myself but all of Italian football. We failed at something which also means something on a social level. There's regret at finishing like that."

Proud

The Juventus star later added on social media: "We are proud, we are strong, we are stubborn. We will pick ourselves up as we have always done.

"I am leaving a national team set-up that will know how to pick itself up again. Best wishes to everybody, and especially to those with whom I have shared this beautiful journey."

Italy’s Leonardo Bonucci in action with Sweden’s Marcus Berg. Photo: Reuters/Max Rossi
Italy’s Leonardo Bonucci in action with Sweden’s Marcus Berg. Photo: Reuters/Max Rossi

The tension in the San Siro was palpable as the Italians began their pursuit of the crucial goal that could open the way to Russia.

Their home record is formidable - the Azzurri had not lost a competitive match on home soil since 1999 - but the Italians knew that only a win would suffice. Their cause appeared to be given a helping hand when the Swedes suffered a huge slice of misfortune with the game only 17 minutes old.

Jakob Johansson, the goalscorer from the first leg in Stockholm on Friday, had his studs planted in the turf as he turned to retrieve a pass behind him, and his knee buckled. He was carried off to be replaced by Gustav Svensson as the Swedes dug in for a long night.

They had already survied an early scare. Jorginho, the Brazilian-born Napoli midfielder who was making his competitive debut, picked out Ciro Immobile who shot into the side-netting.

Italy’s Giorgio Chiellini in action with Sweden’s Viktor Claesson as Italy’s Jorginho looks on. Photo: Reuters/Alessandro Garofalo
Italy’s Giorgio Chiellini in action with Sweden’s Viktor Claesson as Italy’s Jorginho looks on. Photo: Reuters/Alessandro Garofalo

Midway through the first half, Sweden made a rare foray forward from which Viktor Claesson hit a low shot from the edge of the penalty area but Buffon made a routine save. The attacking momentum was running mainly the other way as Italy strove to unlock the resolute Swedish defence.

Italy's best approach involved Jorginho picking out Immobile in behind the Swedish defence and five minutes before half-time his beautifully weighted pass enabled the striker to drive a shot at goalkeeper Robin Olsen.

Italian pressure grew as the interval approached. Leonardo Bonucci headed over from a free-kick, then Alessandro Florenzi cut in from the left, beat one defender then unleashed a shot that Olsen blocked with his feet.

Sweden rode out that storm and as the second half progressed, still goalless, Italian frustration mounted, not eased by having several penalty claims waved away by Spanish referee Antonio Miguel Mateur Lahoz.

Italy’s Andrea Barzagli in action with Sweden’s Ola Toivonen. Photo: Reuters/Alessandro Garofalo
Italy’s Andrea Barzagli in action with Sweden’s Ola Toivonen. Photo: Reuters/Alessandro Garofalo

Immobile directed another effort into the side-netting but when, with only five minutes remaining, Andrea Belotti shot wide from long range, the damning statistic for the Italians was that for all their possession, they had mustered just four shots on target.

Sweden held firm and then their celebrations started.

"We had no weapons left. We just had to sit there and hope that we could hang on," said Sweden coach Jan Andersson. "We couldn't do it in any other way, they are so skilful."

Russia 2018 awaits them, while Italy will have to watch from afar. (© Daily Telegraph, London)

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