UEFA World Cup Qualifying

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Italy misses World Cup for first time in 60 years as Sweden advances

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Another footballing giant has missed out on next summer’s World Cup, and this time it is four-time world champions Italy.

[ MORE: USMNT looks to forge ahead with match against Portugal ]

The Azzurri drew Sweden, 0-0, on Monday in their UEFA World Cup qualifying second leg at the San Siro, but the result was good enough for the Swedes to reach Russia in 2018 after coming away with a 1-0 victory in the first leg.

Gian Piero Ventura’s Italy became the first Azzurri side since 1958 to miss out of qualification into the world’s most prominent competition. That tournament was ironically held in Sweden, where the hosts finished runners’ up to Brazil.

Meanwhile, for Sweden, the Euro nation reaches the World Cup for the first time since 2006, after previously missing out on two successive editions of the competition (2010 & 2014).

The visitors sat back for much of the match and absorbed Italy’s pressure, but the Azzurri often made the task easy for Sweden with their lack of build up.

The Italians were desperate to get a first goal before halftime, when Ciro Immobile found himself in on goal, but his shot took a slight deflection from Swedish goalkeeper Robin Olsen and was ultimately cleared before the ball could trickle over the goal line by Andreas Granqvist.

Jorginho’s inclusion in the starting XI for the suspended Marco Verratti was a big talking point heading into the match, and the Napoli midfielder nearly made a major impact in the 27th minute.

The 25-year-old played a brilliant flicked ball over the top of Sweden back line towards Ciro Immobile, but the final shot by Antonio Candreva wasn’t on target.

Sweden didn’t have the ideal start to the second leg, with the Blue-Yellow forced to make a substitution inside the opening 20 minutes for the injured Jakob Johansson.

Marco Parolo had a legitimate shout for a penalty kick after just eight minutes when the Italian attacker was contacted in the Swedish penalty area.

The visitors had their own claim for a penalty in the 12th minute after the ball appeared to pop up and catch the arm of Candreva, however, the referee opted to play on once again.

[ MORE: Switzerland clinches World Cup berth ]

Italy joins Chile, Holland, the U.S. Men’s National Team, Ghana and the Ivory Coast as some of the most recognizable countries to miss out on next year’s World Cup.

Switzerland clinches World Cup berth

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The pitch was far from perfect on Sunday, but that didn’t for Switzerland.

[ MORE: Serie B coach goes on epic rant with Italy on verge of elimination ]

The Swiss became the 27th team to qualify for next summer’s World Cup in Russia after settling for a 0-0 draw against Northern Ireland at St Jakob-Park.

Chances were at a minimum throughout the match, but the visitors nearly forced the game into extra time when Jonny Evans‘ close-range effort forced a goal-line clearance out of the Swiss back line.

The hosts came out strong in the second half, with Ricardo Rodriguez testing No. Ireland keeper Michael McGovern immediately after the halftime break.

Xherdan Shaqiri was a menace down the wing throughout the first half for the Swiss, testing McGovern on several occasions as well.

The Northern Irish nearly broke the deadlock just two minutes into the match when Chris Brunt unleashed a powerful effort from distance.

Three more European spots will be up for grabs in the coming days as the WCQ cycle rounds out.

Kasper Schmeichel calls Denmark pitch “horrendous” after Ireland draw

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Denmark would’ve liked to have scored at its home pitch on Saturday during their UEFA World Cup qualifying playoff against the Republic of Ireland, but a scoreless draw was more than sufficient heading into the second leg.

[ MORE: Hazard calls Belgium teammate “the best player in the PL” ]

That being said, not everyone was pleased with the Parken Stadium’s playing surface for a match of its magnitude.

Leicester City and Danish goalkeeper Kasper Schmeichel was critical of the pitch following the 0-0 draw on Saturday, calling it “horrendous” that wasn’t conducive to support Denmark’s style of play.

“It was an horrendous pitch, which was very disappointing,” Schmeichel said. “There was no grass on it, it was soft, it took me back to the old days at Bury and in League Two.

“We wanted to play incisive football, so it made a bit of difference, but no excuse. They were very dogged.”

Notice that Schmeichel also got a shot in his statement at one of his former clubs and their field — Bury — where he spent time on loan back in 2006.

The two nations will meet again on Tuesday in Ireland, and a win or scoring draw (1-1, 2-2, etc.) would be enough for Schmeichel and Denmark to reach the World Cup with the away goals rule in effect.

Substitute Johansson gives Sweden early advantage over Italy

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It’s not exactly a mountain to climb, but Italy still has its work cut out for themselves after falling on Friday.

[ MORE: Senegal qualifies for World Cup with win over South Africa ]

Sweden earned an important 1-0 victory over Italy at the Friends Arena, giving the Swedes an important lead heading into next week’s second leg.

The hosts were on the back foot for much of the match, but second-half substitute Jakob Johansson gave the home side the lead in the 61st minute after his shot from outside the box was deflected and in past goalkeeper Gianluigi Buffon.

Italy nearly found an equalizer 10 minutes later when Matteo Darmian struck a brilliant shot off the post, but the Azzurri couldn’t find the back of the net.

The Italians received some bad news in the first half after Marco Verratti picked up a yellow card around the half-hour mark, and made him ineligible for the second leg between the two nations due to accumulation of bookings.

Andrea Belotti nearly gave the visitors an early lead on five minutes when his free header glanced just wide of the left post.

Sweden and Italy will meet once again in Milan on Monday at the San Siro with a place in the World Cup on the line.

Italy’s plan for Sweden in WCup playoff: ‘Play like Italy’

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ROME (AP) Italy has a straightforward plan to avoid missing its first World Cup in six decades – just play its usual game in the playoff against Sweden.

After all, Italy has gone unbeaten against Sweden in their last five meetings and won four of the encounters, including 1-0 last year at the European Championship.

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Perhaps making matters less complicated, standout striker Zlatan Ibrahimovic retired from Sweden duty after Euro 2016.

“They’re four-fifths the same squad. They play the same. They’re physical and well organized. It’s part of their DNA,” Italy coach Gian Piero Ventura said on Monday.

“But the real problem isn’t what Sweden does. It’s what we do. Italy has to play like Italy. We’ve always been there when there’s something important to play for.”

A four-time champion, 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.

“Nobody has even considered not going,” Ventura said at the Azzurri’s Coverciano training complex in Florence.

But Italy has showed poor form recently, ever since a 3-0 loss to Spain in September that virtually sealed its fate as the second-place finisher in its qualifying group.

After the Spain match, Italy narrowly edged Israel 1-0 at home, drew with Macedonia 1-1 at home, and won in Albania 1-0.

With his job on the line, though, Ventura would gladly accept two more narrow wins.

“In Spain or England when you win playing poorly they fire the coach. In Italy, results count more than anything,” said the 69-year-old journeyman coach, who never managed a major club before being called in as a replacement when Antonio Conte left the national team for Chelsea after Euro 2016.

“It’s a big moment for me but also for the players,” Ventura added. “Going or not going to a World Cup means something. For some it’s the beginning of a cycle, for others it’s a matter of finishing in a certain manner.”

Captain Gianluigi Buffon made his first appearance for Italy in a World Cup playoff against Russia on a snowy pitch in 1997. Having announced he plans to retire from the national team, the playoff could mark his final international matches.

In one of the four European playoffs, Italy travels to Stockholm for the opening leg on Friday. The return match will be at Milan’s San Siro Stadium three days later.

In qualifying, Ventura relied on Andrea Belotti and Ciro Immobile – two players he previously coached at Torino – for goals. But there are questions over their fitness.

Belotti, who scored 26 goals with Torino in Serie A last season, appears to be at only 60-70 percent capacity as he works his way back from a right knee injury. Immobile leads the Italian league with 14 goals in 11 matches this season but recently strained a leg muscle.

On the positive side, Simone Zaza was recalled after scoring eight goals in his last seven league games for Valencia; wingers Antonio Candreva, Lorenzo Insigne and Stephan El Shaarawy are also in top form; and key midfielders Marco Verratti and Daniele De Rossi return after missing the final two qualifiers through injury.

[ MORE: Slaven Bilic fired at West Ham ]

Mario Balotelli, meanwhile, hasn’t played for Italy since the Azzurri’s first-round elimination from the 2014 World Cup. He remains out of the squad.

While Sweden didn’t qualify for the last two World Cups, it impressed in qualifying with a win over France and finished ahead of the Netherlands in its group.

“We are winners just by being here,” Sweden coach Janne Andersson said.

Sweden went unbeaten at home in qualifying at Friends Arena and striker Marcus Berg scored eight times in nine matches

“If we can play at that level, we can beat any team in the world – including Italy,” Andersson added.

Ventura called up an expanded 27-man squad to allow room for injuries and suspensions in the 72 hours between the two games. Four players – Giorgio Chiellini, Marco Parolo, Verratti and Immobile – are in danger of missing the second leg if they pick up another yellow card.

More than 65,000 tickets have been sold for the game at the San Siro.

“We can’t disappoint them,” Ventura said of the fans. “And we can’t disappoint Italy.”

Andrew Dampf on Twitter: http://www.twitter.com/asdampf