Italy is teetering on the brink of missing its first World Cup in 60 years after a 1-0 loss to Sweden in the first leg of their UEFA playoff on Friday night in Solna.
The result leaves the Azzurri needing at least two goals at the San Siro on Monday in the second leg to avoid elimination. And they might need more than two.
Because of the away goals tiebreaker, a 1-0 Italian win would send the second leg to extra time, but any other one-goal win – 2-1 or 3-2, for example – would not be enough. If Sweden can score an away goal, Italy would need three. If 120 minutes finish with Italy leading 1-0, the game would go to penalties.
Italy finished second in its qualifying group to Spain, a perfectly understandable outcome. Until the penultimate day of qualifying, the four-time World Cup winners didn’t drop any points against non-Spanish opposition. But they drew Spain at home, then lost on the road, and were resigned to qualifying through a playoff.
But Italy has been underwhelming throughout the past two years, ever since Antonio Conte departed for Chelsea. And that’s in part because it has been woefully mismanaged.
Journeyman 69-year-old manager Gian Piero Ventura has been unable to find an effective mix of midfielders and forwards. The defense – still anchored by goalkeeper Gianluigi Buffon, Giorgio Chiellini, Andrea Barzagli and Leonardo Bonucci – is fine. But, inexplicably, Ventura has refused to turn to two of the three best Italian midfielders and forwards in the sport, Napoli’s Jorginho and Lorenzo Insigne. The best team in Serie A didn’t have a single representative in Friday’s starting 11. Insigne, a tricky winger and goalscoring wide forwad was introduced off the bench with 15 minutes remaining – as a central midfielder.
And Ventura will be without his best midfielder, Marco Verratti, for the second leg. The PSG man picked up a yellow card during Friday’s first half that will earn him a suspension on accumulation.
During that first half, Sweden was the better team. RB Leipzig midfielder Emil Forsberg dictated the game from his playmaker position, and the hosts had several half-chances. Italy had one of note as well. Striker Andrea Belotti nodded a cross just wide of the far post.
The two sides went into halftime scoreless, but Sweden got their deserved breakthrough after an hour:
— FOX Soccer (@FOXSoccer) November 10, 2017
The goal required a hefty slice of luck, sure. Jakob Johansson’s shot took a meaningful deflection on its way toward Buffon’s goal. The legendary Italian keeper was left helpless. And luck didn’t return the favor to Italy as the visitors pressed for an equalizer. Matteo Darmian hit the post from long range.
But Italy didn’t deserve anything from the game. It now has plenty of work to do back on home soil in three days’ time to avoid ignominy. One of European soccer’s superpowers, it has qualified for every tournament since the 1958 edition in – coincidentally – Sweden.
That failure made the top five of our list of biggest World Cup qualifying failures in history. This one wouldn’t be quite as shocking. The Azzurri have been dumped out of the last two World Cups in the group stage, and although their defense has remained solid, they’ve been mediocre in attack over the past decade.
They are still one of the 13 best teams in Europe. But the qualifying draw dealt them a tough hand. A wicked deflection worsened it on Friday. Now they have 90 minutes to dig themselves out of a hole.
Other World Cup qualifying scores
– Senegal beat South Africa 2-0 to become the 24th team to qualify.
– In the UEFA playoffs on Thursday, Croatia beat Greece 4-1 in the first leg at home. Switzerland won 1-0 in Northern Ireland. The first leg of Denmark-Ireland is set for Saturday.
– First legs in Honduras (Honduras-Australia) and New Zealand (New Zealand-Peru) finished 0-0.
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Henry Bushnell covers soccer – the U.S. national teams, the Premier League, and much, much more – for Yahoo Sports. Have a tip? Question? Comment? Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org or follow him on Twitter @HenryBushnell.