Sweden tackle Italy in the first leg of a World Cup play-off Friday, putting on a bold face as they welcome the four-time world champions at the Friends Arena in Solna.
“We are winners just by being here,” the Blue-Yellows coach Janne Andersson said this week. “We had the toughest qualification group against the Netherlands and [first-placed] France and we played some really good games. If we can play at that level, we can beat any team in the world – including Italy.”
The Swedes beat France 2-1 at home and clinched second place in Group A edging the Netherlands on goal difference, while Italy missed direct qualification, finishing behind Spain in Group G. Sweden appeared in 11 of the past 20 editions and were hosts in 1958, clinching their best ever placement with the final lost 5-2 against Brazil. Italy only missed the 1958 finals and, like Sweden, did not enter the first edition in 1930. Cautious confidence holds sway at the Azzurri camp ahead of the trip to Solna, a municipality north of Stockholm. The Giuseppe Meazza in Milan hosts the return Monday. Captain Gianluigi Buffon, 39, seeks a record sixth World Cup participation, ahead of Mexico's Antonio Carbajal and German Lothar Matthaeus, who are both retired on five. A survivor from Italy's last triumph in 2006 along with Daniele De Rossi and Andrea Barzagli, the goalkeeper said that “a play-off is always a risk,” recalling the first of his record 173 appearances with Italy in October 1997. Italy then drew 1-1 at Russia in a play-off for the 1998 World Cup and qualified by winning the second game 1-0. “It would be important that the result remained the same as 20 years ago,” Buffon said. “What worries about Sweden is that they are methodic. They do their usual things and they do them well. You know that to win you have to play a good game, also individually.” Also worrying Buffon is Marcus Berg, whose four goals in an 8-0 hammering of Luxembourg helped Sweden clinch second place, while Italian-league players Filip Helander, Marcus Rohden and Emil Krafth have the advantage of knowing the opponents. Italy have Ciro Immobile in top form, with 14 goals in 11 Serie A games, while Andrea Belotti returns form injury as boss Gian Piero Ventura called back Simone Zaza after a year's absence.