Italy have been present at 18 World Cup finals out of 20 but just three hours of football against Sweden will determine whether they are in Russia next year.
Mighty Italy have been left scrambling for their place in next year’s World Cup through the play-offs and the Azzurri face 180 minutes – and maybe extra-time – against Sweden to reach the finals in Russia.
Sweden host the first leg in Stockholm on Friday, 24 hours after Croatia v Greece and Northern Ireland v Switzerland open the European play-offs. Denmark v Ireland starts Saturday with the reverse fixtures played Sunday through Tuesday.
Italy have only failed to qualify for one previous World Cup but being placed in a group with Spain meant at least one European giant would need the second chance of the play-offs.
“The approach to the game and our determination will be key,” coach Gian Piero Ventura said. “It’s not about Sweden, what we do is what matters.
“I dream of having 20 days in which to coach the team and for this we have to go to the World Cup. Now isn’t the time to dream as we can only think about these two matches.”
Ventura has called up Napoli midfielder Jorginho and striker Simone Zaza, who has starred in Valencia’s impressive start to the Spanish season.
“Zaza has been on a journey, it’s the first time I’ve called him up and he’s here on merit, it’s not just about the goals that he’s been scoring but his performances above all else,” said Ventura.
Sweden are in the first campaign without superstar Zlatan Ibrahimovic but survived a tough qualifying group second to France but ahead of the Netherlands and Bulgaria to reach the play-offs.
“We had the toughest qualification group against the Netherlands and France and we played some really good games,” coach Janne Andersson told FIFA.com. “If we can play at that level, we can beat any team in the world – including Italy.
“The history of Italian football is good, they have good individual players and they have been to the World Cup many times before. They have good experience and a good team. But we will go for it.”
Minnows Northern Ireland are seeking to build on Euro 2016 qualification with a first World Cup appearance since 1986. However, they face a Swiss side in the play-offs despite winning nine of 10 qualifiers, losing out only on goal difference to Cristiano Ronaldo’s Portugal for an automatic spot.
“We need it to be close because I don’t think we are going to come through a high-scoring tie,” Northern Irish coach Michael O’Neill said.
“It’s important not to concede at home. We are not a team suited to going out and chasing the game.”
Ireland won away to Wales in the last qualifier to reach a record eighth play-off to a major finals – they have won three and lost four of their previous appearances.
They meet Denmark with both squads being tested by injuries to various players.
Meanwhile a streak must end when Croatia, who have won a record four out of four play-offs, meet Greece who are perfect in two previous appearances. The Greeks can become the first European side to reach three consecutive World Cups via play-offs should they progress.