When this writer thinks of Italy versus Sweden, his thoughts immediately turn to Zlatan Ibrahimovic, the European Championships of 2004 and a cheeky volleyed back heel, which compounded La Nazionale’s early exit from that particular tournament.
After having played three quarters of that game in a sublime fashion, the genius of Ibrahimovic undid 75 minutes of impressive calcio. The rest, as they say, is history and the subsequent 2-2 draw between the Swedes and close neighbours Denmark in the final group match, meant that the two countries from Scandinavia progressed and Italy packed its bags for an early summer holiday. The importance of the 2-2 result had scribes in the peninsula furiously reaching for their biros, as this was the only score line that would have knocked the Italians out and sent both Denmark and Sweden through. Contrived? Well, you can imagine what the nation that was still reeling from the Byron Moreno scandal from the 2002 World Cup, thought of it.
Lets just say that there is a score or two to settle against the Swedes. In all honesty, this isn’t the game Marcello Lippi wanted to prepare his boys for the forthcoming World Cup, but its what the FIGC (Italian FA) has handed him. Ibrahimovic has pulled out of the squad so won’t be there this time, there isn’t a qualifying spot at stake and Sweden aren’t the team they have been over the last few years. They have failed to qualify for the tournament in South Africa and so they themselves are in a process of rebuilding. They have a new coach in Erik Hamren and looking at the players picked for the friendly against the world champions, it’s a mix of old and new. One thing that is apparent, none of the 24 names really stand out. Italy playing at home, a squad of players trying to catch the eye of the Coach to book a seat on that flight to the World Cup, must surely mean a nice leisurely game to hone Lippi’s tactics and schemes ready for when the real action takes place. Hmmm, unfortunately Italy doesn’t seem to do ‘leisurely’, as the recent Ireland and Cyprus games strikingly highlighted.
Focusing on the Azzurri, the bulk of the squad for the World Cup is more or less picked. But three or four places could still be up for grabs, not least of all in the striking department where only Alberto Gilardino is guaranteed a place. Games like this will be a chance (if indeed these players are given an opportunity) for Giuseppe Rossi, Giampaolo Pazzini, Antonio Di Natale and now Raffaele Palladino to say to the Coach, “look at me, look at me….”. Italy has rarely been a high scoring team, but it has always had a dependable forward who could get the team important goals (think Paolo Rossi 1982, Salvatore Schillaci 1990, Roberto Baggio 1994, Christian Vieri 1998, 2002). But since Berlin 2006, where Marco Materrazzi joint top scored with Luca Toni on 2 goals, La Nazionale is still in search of that elusive World Cup scoring sensation.
Shall we discuss Antonio Cassano and another missed call up? Probably best not to. Its no longer sensational, unbelievable, inexplicable or even relevant. He isn’t going to the World Cup and so wasting column inches on him is just that, a waste. Best to focus on the players and team in hand. Lippi will be expected to give some of the younger elements some substantial minutes against the Swedes in Cesena. After his positive game against Holland, Antonio Candreva certainly deserves another run out. Expect to see Diego Criscito and possibly Salvatore Bocchetti in the defence. The tactician may also hand Federico Marchetti the gloves to prove his worth as Gigi Buffon’s heir. There is the possibility of a different formation to the 4-3-3 we witnessed against, and it must be said, a quite lacklustre Dutch team. It was a decent, if not extraordinary performance against the Netherlands, who on the face of that match look as if they will once again choke when it comes to the big stage.
Sweden will not (or should not) be a formidable adversary. Just like a heavyweight boxing champion, Italy is facing a soft opponent that it should easily knock out or at least win convincingly on points. A rival to fine tune and polish its skills and preparations, a team it can use to put in the groundwork for the bigger tests later next summer, when it will face the real contenders for its crown.