Italy and Sweden eye World Cup spot with lack of big-name stars
Italy and Sweden face off in a two-legged playoff for a place at the 2018 World Cup. But both sides are still missing some big name players who have never really been replaced. Who will step up when it counts?
ITALY: What a difference a year makes. Italy exceeded expectation at Euro 2016 and the team truly believed that if they had overcome Germany in their quarterfinal penalty shootout, they would have won the tournament. Italy were greater than the sum of their parts, a team enriched by the tactical instruction and mentality of then-manager Antonio Conte.
Now they face their first playoff in 20 years and fear missing out on a major tournament for the first time since 1958. "No one has or is taking into consideration the idea of not going the World Cup," Conte's successor Gian Piero Ventura has insisted. Italy's players have told the country not to worry, but there is an unmistakable sense they are saying it to make themselves believe it too.
Ventura's determination to make this team his own and line it up in a system unsuited to its best players has caused all the belief Conte generated to evaporate. The comprehensive 3-0 defeat to Spain at the Bernabeu and lacklustre displays against Macedonia and Israel at home have made Italy question how good they are, and how there are no longer the stars of old to hang their hopes upon.
Gianluigi Buffon is still there but, with Milan teenager Gianluigi Donnarumma waiting in the wings, these could be his last games for Italy. The 39-year-old made his international debut in the Azzurri's last playoff against Russia in 1997 and this brings him full circle. Italy qualified then and Buffon sincerely hopes they will again. No one has ever appeared in six editions of the World Cup and Buffon still plans on being the first.
In defence, the BBC (Andrea Barzagli, Leonardo Bonucci and Giorgio Chiellini) do not give the impression of being as solid as they were before they were broken up at club level, with Juve's Daniele Rugani waiting for his chance.
Italy's most creative players Marco Verratti and Lorenzo Insigne have yet to play at the same level for their country as they do with their clubs, held back by Ventura's system, and are still a long way away from reaching the levels of Andrea Pirlo -- who hung up his boots at international level in 2015. Strikers Andrea Belotti and Ciro Immobile are not fully fit after recent injuries and Italy still miss a goal scorer of the likes of Alessandro Del Piero or Filippo Inzaghi.
All told, though, they still should have enough. Italy haven't lost to Sweden in almost two decades, but expect it to be nerve-wracking as all that separated them in Toulouse in Group E was an 88th-minute winner by Eder.
Indeed, Sweden have the Azzurri worried. Recall they beat France in Solna and finished ahead of Netherlands in qualifying. Zlatan Ibrahimovic may have retired but in the absence of a go-to world class individual, they have developed into a better team. The pressure is on Italy. -- James Horncastle.
SWEDEN: In many ways, Sweden has already overachieved in this qualifying campaign. Drawn in the same group as France and the Netherlands, few had expected a Swedish team lacking star players to even reach the playoffs. But in the absence of Ibrahimovic, who retired from internationals after Euro 2016, new coach Janne Andersson has managed to form a collective unit that is arguably stronger than the side that was so heavily dependent on their star striker.
To get past Italy, though, Sweden will need at least a couple of players to step up and become stars in their own rights. Ibrahimovic was the last remaining member of a Swedish team that once also featured Henrik Larsson in attack, Freddie Ljungberg in midfield and Olof Mellberg in defence -- players who added name recognition and flair to Sweden's traditional hallmark of hard work and physical grit. These days Sweden's squad is more of a "who's that?" than a "who's who" of European football.
Of the 25 players called up for the two-legged playoff against Italy, the only one who plays for one of Europe's top clubs is centre-back Victor Lindelof, who has struggled mightily to adapt to life at Manchester United. Lindelof is the closest thing to a direct replacement for Mellberg that Sweden have produced since the former Aston Villa captain retired from internationals in 2012.
They've waited even longer to find proper replacements for Ljungberg and Larsson, who hung up their national team boots in 2008 and 2009, respectively. And chances are, they'll never find another Ibrahimovic. But this is the time for the next generation to really make their own mark.
Lindelof was among the star performers when Sweden won the Under-21 European Championship in 2015, and is widely expected to form the bedrock of the team's defence for the next decade. But he's facing a growing number of doubters after his rocky start at Old Trafford and was far from convincing in Sweden's last group game against Netherlands.
In midfield, Emil Forsberg may be ready to follow in the footsteps of 1994 World Cup hero Tomas Brolin as a top-class creative midfielder. Forsberg has become known as the assist king of the Bundesliga after leading RB Leipzig to second place last season, and has been widely linked with a move to a bigger club next summer. He struggled at last summer's Euros, but could redeem himself with a star performance against Italy.
But in attack, Sweden have nothing to offer that will strike fear in the heart of Italy's vaunted defence. Andersson will likely stick to a 4-4-2 with Marcus Berg and Ola Toivonen up front, a duo with 30 international goals between them but with fairly undistinguished club careers. Berg is a former Hamburg and Panathinaikos striker who now plays for Abu Dhabi's Al Ain; Toivonen left Sunderland in 2016 following a brief loan spell to join Toulouse, where his record of seven goals in 35 league games is far from impressive.
It's a far cry from a Larsson-Ibrahimovic front line, the likes of which Sweden will probably never see again, but if they want to progress to the 2018 World Cup, someone is going to have to step up when it matters. -- Mattias Karen.