Four-time champion Italy was left at serious risk of failing to qualify for the World Cup for the first time in six decades after losing at Sweden 1-0 in the opening leg of their playoff on Friday.
Substitute Jakob Johansson scored shortly after the hour mark with a shot from the edge of the area that deflected in off Daniele De Rossi. After a long throw-in, Ola Toivonen headed the ball out to Johansson and his deflected drive wrong-footed goalkeeper Gianluigi Buffon for his first international goal.
The Azzurri created few chances at Friends Arena outside Stockholm and were fortunate not to concede more goals after allowing Sweden a series of free kicks early on.
Italy’s best opportunity was a long effort from Matteo Darmian that squarely hit the post in the 70th. The Azzurri’s only other significant chance was a header from Andrea Belotti six minutes in.
Sweden imposed itself with its physicality and playmaker Emil Forsberg proved especially dangerous with his passing skills, setting up numerous opportunities.
Early in the second half, Italy became outraged at Sweden’s physicality, protesting for yellow cards at perceived excessive contact. But Turkish referee Cuneyt Cakir said to play on.
Italy coach Gian Piero Ventura wanted the referee to intervene more.
“But that’s not a justification,” Ventura said. “A draw was the minimum we could hope for considering what happened on the pitch.”
Making matters more complicated for Italy was that creative midfielder Marco Verratti picked up a yellow card that will rule him out of the return match on Monday at Milan’s San Siro.
“We need to learn from the mistakes we made tonight,” Italy defender Leonardo Bonucci said. “I’m expecting a great match at the San Siro and for Italy to go to the World Cup. We’ve got to play the match of our lives.”
Italy has only three goals in its last five matches and hasn’t found the net in two of those games.
“We have to be quicker on the ball,” Bonucci said. “In the return leg, we have to really fight. They played a very physical game but we can’t make excuses.”
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.
While Sweden didn’t compete in the last two World Cups, it impressed in qualifying with a win over France and finished ahead of the Netherlands in its group.
“We need to go to Milan and focus on our game,” Sweden striker Marcus Berg said. “We know what to do. It will be a tough match but we have a strong belief in what we’re going to do.”
Ventura relied on Ciro Immobile and Belotti _ two of his former players at Torino _ in attack. That decision left winger Lorenzo Insigne, considered the Azzurri’s most talented forward recently, on the bench. Insigne replaced Verratti for the final quarter hour but made little impact.
With his strong play on the left flank, Darmian was Italy’s only bright spot. Jose Mourinho, Darmian’s manager at Manchester United who watched from the tribune, had to be pleased.
Otherwise, the Azzurri were too predictable and slow to punish Sweden’s well-organized defense.
“Their goal was fairly lucky,” Darmian said. “But we need to do more.”