Sweden vs. Italy: First leg keys to the game
The first leg of the playoff between Sweden and Italy for a spot at the 2018 World Cup in Russia is this evening in Stockholm. While much has been made of the azzurri being in "crisis," we must remember that Spain was in Italy's group and it was always going to be tough to come in first place and qualify directly. Italy played well in the qualification fixtures, even drawing 1-1 in the first match with Spain, until the 3-0 loss in Madrid. Since then their form has dropped and they will face a very organized Sweden squad. Here are three keys to the first leg for the Italian squad:
1. What formation and lineup will Ventura use
In that Spain match, Ventura used a 4-2-4 formation and has stuck with it since, however, projections show that he will return to the 3-5-2 used under Antonio Conte. This will solidify the defense, as it will place Barzagli-Bonucci-Chiellini in familiar positions. Where it worries me is going forward. The team in Euro 2016 did not have Jorginho in the squad and didn't rely on Lorenzo Insigne. These players should be key players for the azzurri and they rely on a 4-3-3 at Napoli. Early projections show neither of them will play which could be a mistake. It seems a 4-3-3 could be the best formation because it allows Italy to have its most in form players on the field and could have gone something like this:
Buffon; D'Ambrosio, Bonucci (Rugani), Chiellini, Darmian; Verrati, De Rossi (Gagliardini), Jorginho; El Sharaawy (Candreva), Immobile, Insigne.
If you wanted to play more in form players you could use Rugani, Gagliardini and El Sharaawy, or you could choose Bonucci, De Rossi and Candreva for more familiar and reliable players for a match of this magnitude. The problem is D'Ambrosio and El Sharaawy have not even been called up for the match, so they have no chance of making an impact, and Insigne or Jorginho do not look to be starting. If Ventura does indeed play a 3-5-2, it will be interesting to see how they play going forward, which brings me to my next key to the match...
2. Trying to score an away goal
It is obvious that without Zlatan Ibrahimovic, Sweden has become a much more organized and collective squad. They don't have anyone of Ibrahimovic's quality, but they are much harder to break down at this point. Italy traditionally has a tough time breaking down teams that want to defend for a whole match. While Sweden will undoubtedly be happy with a 0-0 draw at home, as it gives them an advantage at the San Siro in the second leg, Italy should try and go for an away goal to take the upper hand. Early indications show that Immobile and Belotti will both play up front, and while they both have great goal scoring ability, it will be interesting to see how they interact with each other in order to create chances.
3. Which Bonucci will show up?
By now, it is known that Bonucci has struggled to start the season with Milan. Italy will undoubtedly look for him to be a rock at the back between Barzagli and Chiellini, and at the Euros last season he was also a playmaker for the azzurri. His long vertical passes were able to setup goals and help the azzurri make a run to the quarterfinals. In his past two games with Milan, he was decent against AEK and played probably his best match in a rossonero shirt against Sassuolo. The two game suspension may have given him the mental break he needs, and hopefully tonight with his former Juve teammates surrounding him Leo can give a vintage performance and return to his best. If Bonucci anchors the defense, Italy should be able to keep Sweden from scoring and push forward for a vital away goal.