2018 World Cup qualifying

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Buffon announces Azzurri retirement, Ventura steps down as Italy coach

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Just minutes after Italy’s shocking World Cup qualifying elimination, manager Gian Piero Ventura revealed that he won’t return with the Azzurri.

[ MORE: USMNT to face Bosnia in first friendly of 2018 ]

(Although he would’ve surely be run out of the nation had he not resigned.)

While the head coach’s questionable decisions in tactics and player personnel will surely be questioned for some time between now and 2022, one of Italy’s all-time greats announced that he too would be calling a quits.

Azzurri goalkeeper Gianluigi Buffon has announced his retirement from the national team after the 1-0 aggregate defeat to Sweden.

“I’m not sorry for myself but all of Italian football,” Buffon said following Monday’s loss. “We failed at something which also means something on a social level. There’s regret at finishing like that, not because time passes.

“Those who’ve played know how hard these matches are. We weren’t able to express ourselves at our best. We lacked the composure to score. Play-offs are decided by episodes and they went against us but you can understand that when you’re at fault.”

In typical Buffon form, the classy Juventus shot-stopper relayed these words to the media when asked about who is to blame for Italy’s shortcomings.

“Blame is shared equally between everyone,” Buffon said. “There can’t be scapegoats. Win together, lose together.”

In his international career, Buffon appeared in 175 matches for the Azzurri over a 21-year span.

The veteran was a key figure for the Italians when they hoisted the World Cup in 2006 and his accolades are endless as he was often considered one of, if not, the best goalkeepers throughout his playing career.

Additionally, Daniele De Rossi and Andrea Barzagli have also announced their retirements from the Italian national side. Including Buffon, the three players were the last remaining pieces from the Azzurri team that won the 2006 World Cup.

Update: Giorgio Chiellini has also announced his international retirement.

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.

Ventura calls on Italy to combat Sweden’s physicality with talent

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MILAN (AP) Italy coach Gian Piero Ventura is hoping his players can combat Sweden’s physicality with their footballing talent when they meet again in the second leg of their World Cup playoff on Monday.

[ MORE: Switzerland qualify for World Cup | Croatia join them ]

Italy was outraged at Sweden’s physical approach in the first leg, protesting for yellow cards at perceived excessive contact, and Ventura felt Turkish referee Cuneyt Cakir was too lenient.

Italy defender Leonardo Bonucci will play on Monday with a protective mask after his nose was broken during the match.

“I think the match could have been controlled in a more sportsmanlike manner,” Ventura said in a press conference on Sunday. “And that much is evident if someone tomorrow has to play with a mask on.

“But we’re Italy. If we qualify we have to do so by playing football. That doesn’t mean that Sweden doesn’t. I don’t know what kind of match it will be tomorrow, but I hope there will be better sporting behavior.”

[ MORE: Italy facing key changes ahead of decisive 2nd leg vs. Sweden ]

Italy finished behind Spain in its qualifying group and is now in danger of missing its first World Cup since 1958 after losing the first leg of its playoff 1-0 in Sweden.

“I know the match is fundamental for us, but it’s the same scenario that there was when I joined the national team,” said Ventura, who replaced Antonio Conte after the 2016 European Championship. “We knew that Spain was in our group and we could end up in the playoffs. We can’t be surprised to have got to this point.

“I honestly don’t understand: people are surprised we’re here playing this playoff but that was the scenario from the beginning. Now we’re here, if we lose we’ll make certain decisions, if we win we’ll make others.”

Ventura insisted he was calm and he appeared relaxed at the pre-match press conference, laughing and joking with Italy captain and goalkeeper Gianluigi Buffon.

The match has an added significance for Buffon, who is set to retire at the end of the season. Should Italy fail to qualify it could be the veteran goalkeeper’s last international match after 20 years between the posts for the Azzurri.

[ MORE: Serie B coach’s epic rant meant to motivate Italy ]

“It’s happened so many times in my career that I’ve been in front of important crossroads,” Buffon said. “It doesn’t change anything concerning my future, what would change is that a win, more than meaning I would continue in the national shirt, would mean so much for all of us and for the footballing movement.

“At the moment my situation is secondary, it doesn’t matter.”

Buffon, who won the World Cup with Italy in 2006, has experienced the build-up to many important matches in a long and glittering career with Italy and Juventus.

As well as the World Cup final, Buffon also reached the final of Euro 2012 with Italy, and he also lost three Champions League finals with Juventus.

“Certainly it’s a very tense moment, it’s inevitable looking at the place that’s at stake and looking at the sense of responsibility that each one of us must have,” Buffon said.

“We’re the same as before any important event. Us players are experiencing this calmly, but each of us is experiencing it in their own personal way. Personally, I’ve been tense since Friday, I have the right focus for this match.”

Croatia finish off Greece to qualify for 2018 World Cup

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Following the first leg of UEFA’s four 2018 World Cup qualification playoffs, only one — Croatia’s 4-1 thrashing of Greece — provided 1) multiple goals scored; 2) at least one goal scored by each side; or 3) a lead/deficit of more than one goal at the midway point.

[ MORE: Switzerland qualify for World Cup ]

On Sunday, Zlatko Dalic’s Croatians made good on that three-goal advantage and booked their place at the 2018 World Cup in Russia, courtesy of a 0-0 second-leg draw in Piraeus.

[ MORE: Italy facing key changes ahead of decisive 2nd leg vs. Sweden ]

After Luka Modric, Nikola Kalinic, Ivan Perisic and Andrej Kramaric set them on their merry way in the first leg (the only blemish coming on a Sokratis Papastathopoulos goal), it was little more than a formality that Croatia would qualify for its second straight World Cup and fifth tournament in six tries (missed out in 2010).

[ MORE: Serie B coach’s epic rant meant to motivate Italy ]

Croatia joined Switzerland in having secured on Sunday their spot at next summer’s tournament in Russia. Four sides — Italy and Sweden, and Ireland and Denmark — will decide UEFA’s final two berths on Monday and Tuesday, respectively.

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.