Given one last chance to seize a place at the World Cup Italy pressed, they pushed, but they could not prevail, and as a result next summer’s tournament will take place without them. It is their first such failure in six decades, the Azzurri joining Holland as Europe’s most notable qualifying failures. Both of them were eliminated by Sweden, whose route to Russia has been far from straightforward.
Jakob Johansson’s goal in the first leg ultimately decided the tie in the Swedes’ favour. Here his side’s only ambition was to repel at any cost the waves of attacks rolling towards them, a job they did heroically if not entirely nervelessly.
Carlo Tavecchio, the president of the Italian FA, famously said in September that “not qualifying would be an apocalypse”. That day has arrived, with Gianluigi Buffon tearfully admitting his 175th cap would be his last and Daniele De Rossi – a substitute who when asked to warm up in the second half refused because “I wanted them to bring on attacking players” – also announcing his international retirement. Meanwhile Giampiero Ventura’s tenure as coach is surely over, even if he said after the game he was yet to resign.
His side had 75% of possession and 23 shots to their rivals’ four but there was no way past the visitors’ determined rearguard, the four Norsemen of the apocalypse. “We had no weapons left. We just had to sit there and hope we could hang on,” said the Sweden coach, Jan Andersson. “We couldn’t do it in any other way, they are so skilful.”
De Rossi described “a funereal atmosphere” after the final whistle. “It’s a dark moment for our football,” he said. “Beyond everything that was wrong tactically, technically and physically, we just did not deserve to qualify.”
Amid the disappointment there will also be anger. Ventura had demanded “we get at the San Siro what they got in Stockholm” after criticising the performance of Cuneyt Cakir, the Turkish referee, in the first leg. They did not: both sides had penalty appeals turned down by Antonio Mateu Lahoz, the Spanish official who took charge of this game. Italy will be particularly puzzled that a 47th-minute incident in which Matteo Darmian was kneed in the stomach by Mikael Lustig inside the penalty area resulted in Sweden being awarded a free-kick for handball, particularly as the ball seemed to strike the Manchester United defender on the thigh.
The particular irony here was that Mateu Lahoz had been unable to spot even the most blatant handballs in the first half, when Darmian and Barzagli might have been punished. Before both of those incidents, with just nine minutes played, Andreas Granqvist seemed to trip Marco Parolo from behind. Had the video officials who review key decisions in every Serie A game also been used in this match, it would have been completely different.
Italy were not good enough to find a way through Sweden’s defence but this was still a marked improvement on the first leg. Much of the credit for this must go to Jorginho, the Napoli midfielder who Ventura had never previously considered worthy of so much as a place in his squad. As he did last season, the 25-year-old has played more passes per game than any player not just in Serie A but any of Europe’s major leagues, but the coach had dismissed him in a specialist in “a role that does not exist” in his side. This will be remembered as one of his many mistakes.
He was Italy’s most creative player, and though he faded in the second half he alone threatened to carve a way through the centre of Sweden’s defence. In the 27th minute he lifted a perfectly-judged pass over the visitors’ rearguard and into the path of Manolo Gabbiadini, whose low cross zipped through a crowded six-yard box before being battered over the bar by Antonio Candreva. Then in the 40th minute he picked out Ciro Immobile, whose shot hit the onrushing Robin Olsen but continued on its path goalwards until Granqvist booted clear.
Other than the penalty appeals Sweden never threatened. They were not helped by a serious injury to Johansson, who was stretching for a bouncing ball in an otherwise empty centre circle in the 17th minute when his knee buckled, and left the field on a stretcher. They were content to crowd the central areas, allowing Candreva and the disappointing Darmian space on the flanks, relying on their ability to reach any cross first, and booting any ball they got within touching distance of upfield.
Italy came close on occasion: Parolo’s late header and Florenzi stylish volley both went just wide, while Lustig’s header looped on to his own bar. Olsen, without being seriously tested, saved from Parolo and the substitute Stephan El Shaarawy.
But by any means necessary Sweden defended their narrow lead until the last, a feat that for all their pain Italians should surely appreciate.
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