MILAN • For football giants Italy, the next few days could be a nightmare as they face a double-headed play-off against Sweden to avoid the humiliation of missing out on the World Cup for the first time in 60 years.
Italy missed the 1958 World Cup in Sweden, and Gian Piero Ventura has no intention of joining Alfredo Foni as the only managers to fail to lead the Azzurri to the quadrennial World Cup.
"I don't even consider the idea of not qualifying," insisted the Italy coach. "We'll go to Russia for sure."
The Swedes are happy to play the role of underdogs as they prepare to welcome the four-time world champions to Stockholm for the first leg today, with the return leg in front of a sell-out crowd in Milan's San Siro on Monday.
"We are winners just by being here," said Sweden coach Janne Andersson of the Group A runners-up, who finished behind Euro 2016 runners-up France and ahead of the Netherlands.
"We had the toughest qualification group... and we played some really good games. If we can play at that level, we can beat any team in the world - including Italy."
They will certainly be counting on their home form to avoid failing to qualify for their third consecutive Finals. Andersson's side were unbeaten at the Friends Arena during their group qualifying campaign.
"We're expecting two finals against the Azzurri," former Genoa centre-back and Sweden captain Andreas Granqvist told the pre-match press conference.
NO ZLATAN AN ADVANTAGE
I'd never want Ibra against me, not even at 40 years and with a broken leg. The fact that there's no Ibrahimovic is an advantage for anyone who has to face them.
DANIELE DE ROSSI, Italy midfielder, on Manchester United striker Ibrahimovic, who is recovering from injury, but retired from international duty after last year's European Championship.
"It will be crucial not to concede a goal, but we know their quality very well."
Italy, the only one of eight previous winners not yet sure of their place in this World Cup, have been struggling for goals.
They were dealt a blow yesterday when Simone Zaza - second only to Lionel Messi (12 goals) in the LaLiga scoring charts with nine - pulled out of training with pain in his knee.
The Valencia striker was expected to partner Lazio striker Ciro Immobile up front on his return to the national fold as there are still doubts over Andrea Belotti's fitness.
Since thrashing minnows Liechtenstein 5-0 in June, Italy have scored just three goals in four games.
According to Italian media, Ventura will revert to the 3-5-2 formation used by his predecessor Antonio Conte, rather than his 4-2-4 system, which has limited the creativity of stars such as Marco Verratti, Lorenzo Insigne, and Immobile.
Crucially, it will see defensive stalwarts Andrea Barzagli, Leonardo Bonucci and Giorgio Chiellini line up in front of goalkeeper Gianluigi Buffon.
Italy's defence will be wary of Sweden, top scorers among the eight play-off teams with 26 goals in 10 games. Italy midfielder Daniele De Rossi expressed relief that Sweden no longer have Zlatan Ibrahimovic but they will have to be on their toes against Marcus Berg, who hit four in an 8-0 demolition of Luxembourg.
Buffon, 39, bidding to reach a record sixth World Cup Finals, knows containing Sweden's attackers will be just as important as keeping their emotions in check.
"(Sweden) create a sense of fear because they always do the same thing but they do it well," said the Italy captain and holder of a record 173 caps. "We mustn't feel the pressure because it won't help us."
SWEDEN V ITALY
Singtel TV Ch109, tomorrow, 3.35am