For some of us, this weekend’s Sweden v Italy World Cup play-off tie takes the mind back to Windsor Park, Belfast in January 1958. That was the day of the “Battaglia di Belfast”, the World Cup qualifier which saw little Northern Ireland humiliate the mighty Italy, beating them 2-1 to qualify for that summer’s finals in Sweden, in the process eliminating the Azzurri.
One could recall many aspects of that fascinating tie but for our purposes, arguably the most important consideration is that this was the only time that Italy failed to qualify for a finals tournament. Indeed, Italy have featured in 18 of the 20 finals tournaments, winning the competition four times no less.
All of which is by way of saying that when Italy coach Giampiero Ventura told reporters up at Coverciano, Florence on Monday that his neck was on the line when it comes to this particular play-off, he most definitely was not joking: “This is an important moment, certainly for me and my career but also for my players, some of them at the beginning of their national team experience and some of them coming to the end of it.”
With all due respect to Sweden, themselves 11 times World Cup finalists, you might expect Italy to come into this game, at the very least quietly confident. However, two considerations suggest that Italy can take nothing for granted this weekend. Firstly, as Ventura himself points out, Sweden are a team which beat France in the qualifiers and which also eliminated Holland. In other words, this is a team with some seriously good form lines.
Just in case Ventura was tempted to forget those form lines, Swedish coach Janne Andersson reminded him last week, telling fifa.com: “We had the toughest qualification group against the Netherlands and 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 history of Italian football is good, they have good individual players and they have been to the World Cup many times before. But we will go for it.
“In football, you never know what will happen. I certainly can’t promise that we will win but we are a good team and a good group who like each other on and off the pitch. And what I can promise is that we will work really hard together to achieve something.”
Italy, you have been warned. The second key consideration concerns Italy themselves. When the qualifying draw for 2018 was made, it seemed immediately obvious that Group G would be a straight head to head tussle between Italy and Spain. The possibility that Italy might lose this contest against one of the current powerhouses of European football was always a reality.
However, what the Italian football community may not have expected was the utterly emphatic nature in which Spain overran Italy, firstly in a 1-1 draw in Turin in October last year and then in a 3-0 drubbing in Madrid in September. That defeat clearly knocked a serious dent in the armoury of Italian self-belief, as evidenced by the fact that in their next two games Italy struggled to beat Israel 1-0 and drew 1-1 with Macedonia in consecutive home fixtures.
Among the difficult tactical and selection questions that Ventura must decide before Friday night’s game at the Friends Arena, Stockholm, two stand out. Does he go for an attacking 4-2-4 line up or does he resort to the classic 3-5-2, the best friend of any Italian coach in a do-or-die battle? And then, when faced with the big manly Viking hordes, can he rely on good “littl’uns” like the in form pair of Lorenzo Insigne (Napoli) and Marco Verratti (PSG)?
Many critics would like to see the attack led by Ciro Immobile (Lazio) and Andrea Belotti (Torino) both bigger “centre-forwards” and both in excellent form but both coming into this game after injuries. What would seem certain is that Ventura badly needs the experience of battle hardened veterans such as Daniele De Rossi (Roma) in midfield, defenders Andrea Barzagli (Juventus), Leonardo Bonucci (Milan) and Giorgio Chiellini (Juventus), not to mention 173 times capped goalkeeper Gigi Buffon (Juventus).
And there too hangs a Russia related story. After all, Buffon won the first of those 173 caps on a cold, blizzard-struck Moscow night back in October 1997, in a World Cup play-off no less, against Russia. Forced into the play-offs by the Glenn Hoddle coached England, Cesare Maldini’s Italy had travelled to Moscow in a certain state of apprehension.
Moscow is always a daunting enough away venue but that first play-off was played in a mini-blizzard on a potato patch of a pitch. Worse still, Italy looked to have problems when first choice goalkeeper Gianluca Pagliuca had to come off after only 32 minutes. Maldini had no option but to turn to his uncapped reserve keeper, 19-year-old Buffon, by then a player with two years Serie A experience at Parma behind him.
Notwithstanding the blizzard, the impossible pitch and the prize at stake, Buffon’s cool, his self-confidence and his abundant natural talent did the business. Italy held onto a 1-1 draw, going on to clinch their place in France 98 with a 1-0 win in the Naples return two weeks later. A star had been born.
The 39-year-old Buffon’s Italy career will almost certainly end next summer in Russia… that is, of course, if Italy can beat Sweden next weekend and make sure that he gets there to round it off where it all once started.