STOCKHOLM, (Reuters) – Italy arrived in Sweden for the first game of their two-legged World Cup playoff against Sweden with doubts about the fitness of striker Simone Zaza, who has knee injury which is likely to keep him out of today’s match.
Zaza suffered the flare-up of an old injury during training before the Italian squad departed for Stockholm.
“We’ll see how it goes. Zaza has a little problem, if he can’t play tomorrow he can play on Monday,” Italy manager Gian Piero Ventura told a news conference at the Friends Arena on Thursday.
Flanked by team captain and goalkeeper Gianluigi Buffon, Ventura seemed unperturbed by the injury to his striker.
“Obviously this is a very exciting game, one of the most important (in my career), or at least half of the most important, as it is two games that can take us to the World Cup,” he said.
The Swedes and the Italians have long had a mutual respect for each other on the field, stretching back to when Gunnar Gren, Gunnar Nordahl and Nils Liedholm formed the feared “Gre-No-Li” trio at AC Milan in the 1950s.
The more recent success of Zlatan Ibrahimovic in Serie A rekindled that bond, but Sweden’s record goal-scorer quit the national team after last year’s European Championship in France.
“The Swedish players take more responsibility now. Previously a lot of the play went through Ibrahimovic, he drew everything to himself, but now the other players have a more free role,” Buffon said.
Jan Andersson has fashioned his side into a compact, capable team that has finally stepped out of the shadow of Ibrahimovic, arguably Sweden’s greatest-ever player and the rock on which previous sides were invariably built.
They were solid in defence at home in qualifying, beating France and drawing with the Dutch to sneak into second place on goal difference and nab a playoff spot.
“We feel really strong as a team, we’ve done it well so far, and we are totally at home here at Friends,” Andersson said.