STOCKHOLM • Imagine a World Cup without four-time champions Italy. That could become a reality - unless the Azzurri can overcome a 0-1 play-off first-leg deficit against Sweden in a do-or-die second leg at the San Siro in Milan tomorrow.
Sweden substitute Jakob Johansson grabbed the only goal in the 61st minute of Friday's first-leg clash with a low strike that went in via a big deflection to leave Italy in danger of missing the World Cup for the first time in 60 years.
The last time Italy failed to reach the World Cup was in 1958, but coach Gian Piero Ventura insisted yesterday that they would still make Russia 2018.
"I think the result was unfair. I feel so strongly that we will qualify because I saw the players in the dressing room and they were angry," said the 69-year-old, who took over from Antonio Conte after Euro 2016 when Italy made the quarter-finals.
"There are still 90 minutes left to play. It was a tough, physical match that could have gone a different way if we scored first.
"Now all that matters is getting the result. We have to turn everything on its head back in Milan. San Siro must give us a hand too but it is up to us to deliver a great performance for our fans."
Italy have to beat Sweden by two goals tomorrow to avoid what the head of the Italian Football Federation Carlo Tavecchio has dubbed the "apocalypse".
But their toothless performance on Friday has done nothing to reassure their supporters that they are up to the task.
Gazzetta dello Sport described their display in Sweden as "poor and confused" while Tuttosport said "enough of excuses, we have to avoid a historic embarrassment".
Italy will have to cope without midfielder Marco Verratti, who was booked midway through the first half for a tackle on Marcus Berg and will be suspended tomorrow.
Ventura has also come under fire for leaving in-form Napoli winger Lorenzo Insigne on the bench until the 76th minute. Even more puzzling was Ventura's decision to ask Insigne to fill in Verratti's central midfield role instead of his preferred left-wing position.
Former Italy playmaker Andrea Pirlo, who announced his retirement from football last Monday, was scathing in his criticism.
"Italy looked like a scared team that were playing for a 0-0 draw. In Europe, that is not enough," Pirlo told Sky Sport Italia.
The 38-year-old urged Ventura to ditch his 3-5-2 formation for a 4-3-3 system for the second leg.
"I'd take a more attacking approach, playing a 4-3-3 system to give a little more room to Insigne so he can take men on in the final third," added Pirlo, who won 116 caps and lifted the 2006 World Cup with Italy.
"We lost a lot of balls centrally because of the way the two strikers play. We ought to spread the play to the wings in order to outnumber them.
"It'll be tough to find spaces and Sweden will be very defensive in the second leg, but you can only break them down by moving the ball quickly."
If the Azzurri are to turn things around in the second leg, they will have to show more fight, commitment and desire which all were lacking on Friday.
Italy defender Leonardo Bonucci admitted that they "were too slow in moving the ball", although he accused Sweden of rough tactics after being elbowed by Ola Toivonen within 30 seconds of kick-off.
"We must learn from the mistakes we made, as we were too slow in moving the ball," Bonucci told Rai Sport.
"The referee should've done better to close down the Swedish desire to turn this into a brawl.
"We need the performance of a lifetime on Monday because it is simply too important. Italy must go to the World Cup. In the reverse fixture, we'll have to fight harder."
Sweden coach Janne Andersson was well aware that this was just the midway point in the tie.
"We have talked a lot about bravery and giving ourselves a chance... and overall, we did that today again," said Andersson.
"We'll do an analysis of the game and make a new game plan for Monday."
AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE, REUTERS, THE GUARDIAN