'Apocalypse' Now as Italy Face World Cup Humiliation


Four-time champions Italy go into the second leg of a playoff against Sweden on Monday facing an "apocalyptic" failure to reach the World Cup for the first time since 1958.

Italy need to overturn a 1-0 play-off first-leg defeat against Sweden in front of 74,000 fans in a white-hot atmosphere at the San Siro in Milan.

"It is certainly a moment of high tension, considering what is at stake and the sense of responsibility each of us must bear," said Italy's veteran goalkeeper Gianluigi Buffon.

"It is an important game for the history of our national team."

The 39-year-old Buffon, who will earn his 175th cap against Sweden, is targeting a record sixth World Cup in Russia.

But he could oversee the Azzurri's first elimination since Northern Ireland denied them a ticket to the finals held in Sweden nearly 60 years ago.

Former Italian goalkeeping great Dino Zoff -- whose final game for the Azzurri was a 2-0 loss to Sweden in a 1984 European qualifying match -- called for humility against the dangerous Swedes.

"Sweden have proved they are a good team above all up front in attack. We have to avoid being over-confident. But I think that Italy at the end of the day have all the character to make it," said Zoff.

"The important thing is to score quickly for our self-confidence and to cripple our rivals. Then the second will come..." 

National coach Gian Piero Ventura insists his team will not falter but indications are that Monday's game will be the 69-year-old's last whatever the outcome, with former Chelsea, Real Madrid and Bayern Munich boss Carlo Ancelotti touted as a possible replacement.

"We knew from the moment we picked Spain in the group phase that we'd be heading for the play-offs. Nobody can be surprised we reached this point," Ventura said on Sunday.

"I realize this is the way it works in Italy, but I didn't expect all this," he added of the reaction generated by the humiliation of an impending exit.

"We started out with people talking about the apocalypse."

- Missing playmaker -

Italy were second to Spain in the group phase and never recovered from their confidence-denting 3-0 defeat early September in Madrid.

Ventura has come under fire for stubbornly sticking to a failing tactical system.

"I'm fully aware that this game is fundamental for us, but it's the same scenario as when I first signed to lead the national side," he said.

Italy must overcome the deficit without playmaker Marco Verratti, who is suspended, while defender Leonardo Bonucci will wear a protective mask after breaking his nose in the bruising first leg in Stockholm.

Buffon, who like Andrea Barzagli and Daniele De Rossi is a veteran of the 2006 World Cup-winning campaign, admitted the team were under pressure with national pride at stake.

Italy are World Cup superstars having won the competition four times -- 1934, 1938, 1982 and 2006 -- and lost two finals in 1970 and 1994.

"Losing forbidden," wrote Turin mayor Chiara Appendino on Twitter with a joke in reference to Ikea, the most famous Swedish brand in the world: "They are famous for making homes welcoming, it would be a shame not to send them home."

"We have to bring this qualification home. It's too important for Italy and for all our football," said Roma coach Eusebio Di Francesco.

Buffon called for national unity.

"We want to send Italians a message not with words, but with action on the pitch. We invite them to support us, but realize the time has come for us to show them what we've got," he said.

"I would love for those who come to the stadium to take off their club colors and all wear the Azzurri jersey that unites us all."

Sweden, who were runners-up in 1958, are desperate to return to the world stage after missing the last two editions.

Thousands of their fans wearing the team's yellow jersey have come to Milan for the match.

"The pressure is all on them," said Sweden captain Andreas Granqvist. "Italy are a great nation that has almost always played the World Cup. We have nothing to lose and we will go onto the pitch to give a great performance."

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