A week ago today, Andrea Pirlo announced his retirement from football. What Italy would do for a 30-year-old Pirlo now, the perfect antidote to all the “high tension” apparently engulfing the national squad, put his foot on the ball, seemingly with enough time to light a cigar, and split Sweden’s defence wide open with the swoosh of his right boot.
With arguably Italy’s best player nowadays – Marco Verratti – suspended for tonight’s crucial World Cup play-off second leg, the Azzurri look woefully short of the world-class talent of yesteryear. That said, on paper at least, they should beat Sweden, and 1-0 down from the first leg, that’s exactly what they will have to do if they want to avoid becoming the first Italy side not to qualify for a World Cup since 1958.
Just one away goal at the San Siro means Italy will have to score thrice, not a likely development based upon the veracity of Sweden’s defending on Friday, and the bluntness of Italy’s attack.
Ridiculously, Gian Piero Ventura opted for a 3-5-2 formation in Stockholm, instead of the 4-4-2 he had selected in six of seven of Italy’s previous qualifiers. He left out his most potent attacking talent – Lorenzo Insigne – in favour of another central midfielder. There was no width, strikers Ciro Immobile and Andrea Belotti looked isolated (the latter having just five touches in 65 minutes of play) with Italy’s best chance came from a chance long-range strike from Matteo Darmian.
Of course, Sweden deserve a huge amount of credit for Friday’s result. Throughout qualifying, the team has showed a huge amount of togetherness under Janne Andersson, who without Zlatan Ibrahimovic, fully deserved to qualify in second place of Group A, behind France and ahead of Holland. Captain Andreas Granqvist, who failed to make the grade at Wigan a few years ago, has been a colossus at the back, Sebastian Larsson has been revitalised in central midfield, Marcus Berg and Ola Toivonen are a big handful and run their socks off – what they lack in quality, they more than make up for in hard work. Emil Forsberg is the star, a classic No10 who has been the driving force behind RB Leipzig’s recent success, and he will be the chief threat for the Swedes in Milan.
It couldn’t be better poised. My money is on Sweden, but what kind of a World Cup would it be without Italy?
Kick off: 7.45pm GMT, 8.45pm in Milan.