ROME (AP) Italy has a straightforward plan to avoid missing its first World Cup in six decades – just play its usual game in the playoff against Sweden.
After all, Italy has gone unbeaten against Sweden in their last five meetings and won four of the encounters, including 1-0 last year at the European Championship.
Perhaps making matters less complicated, standout striker Zlatan Ibrahimovic retired from Sweden duty after Euro 2016.
”They’re four-fifths the same squad. They play the same. They’re physical and well organized. It’s part of their DNA,” Italy coach Gian Piero Ventura said on Monday.
”But the real problem isn’t what Sweden does. It’s what we do. Italy has to play like Italy. We’ve always been there when there’s something important to play for.”
A four-time champion, Italy has participated in every World Cup since failing to qualify for the 1958 tournament, which coincidentally was held in Sweden.
The last major competitions Italy missed were the 1984 and 1992 European Championships.
”Nobody has even considered not going,” Ventura said at the Azzurri’s Coverciano training complex in Florence.
But Italy has showed poor form recently, ever since a 3-0 loss to Spain in September that virtually sealed its fate as the second-place finisher in its qualifying group.
After the Spain match, Italy narrowly edged Israel 1-0 at home, drew with Macedonia 1-1 at home, and won in Albania 1-0.
With his job on the line, though, Ventura would gladly accept two more narrow wins.
”In Spain or England when you win playing poorly they fire the coach. In Italy, results count more than anything,” said the 69-year-old journeyman coach, who never managed a major club before being called in as a replacement when Antonio Conte left the national team for Chelsea after Euro 2016.
”It’s a big moment for me but also for the players,” Ventura added. ”Going or not going to a World Cup means something. For some it’s the beginning of a cycle, for others it’s a matter of finishing in a certain manner.”
Captain Gianluigi Buffon made his first appearance for Italy in a World Cup playoff against Russia on a snowy pitch in 1997. Having announced he plans to retire from the national team, the playoff could mark his final international matches.
In one of the four European playoffs, Italy travels to Stockholm for the opening leg on Friday. The return match will be at Milan’s San Siro Stadium three days later.
In qualifying, Ventura relied on Andrea Belotti and Ciro Immobile – two players he previously coached at Torino – for goals. But there are questions over their fitness.
Belotti, who scored 26 goals with Torino in Serie A last season, appears to be at only 60-70 percent capacity as he works his way back from a right knee injury. Immobile leads the Italian league with 14 goals in 11 matches this season but recently strained a leg muscle.
On the positive side, Simone Zaza was recalled after scoring eight goals in his last seven league games for Valencia; wingers Antonio Candreva, Lorenzo Insigne and Stephan El Shaarawy are also in top form; and key midfielders Marco Verratti and Daniele De Rossi return after missing the final two qualifiers through injury.
Mario Balotelli, meanwhile, hasn’t played for Italy since the Azzurri’s first-round elimination from the 2014 World Cup. He remains out of the squad.
While Sweden didn’t qualify for the last two World Cups, it impressed in qualifying with a win over France and finished ahead of the Netherlands in its group.
”We are winners just by being here,” Sweden coach Janne Andersson said.
Sweden went unbeaten at home in qualifying at Friends Arena and striker Marcus Berg scored eight times in nine matches
”If we can play at that level, we can beat any team in the world – including Italy,” Andersson added.
Ventura called up an expanded 27-man squad to allow room for injuries and suspensions in the 72 hours between the two games. Four players – Giorgio Chiellini, Marco Parolo, Verratti and Immobile – are in danger of missing the second leg if they pick up another yellow card.
More than 65,000 tickets have been sold for the game at the San Siro.
”We can’t disappoint them,” Ventura said of the fans. ”And we can’t disappoint Italy.”
Andrew Dampf on Twitter: www.twitter.com/asdampf