Italy must not panic as they bid to avoid missing a World Cup for the first time in 60 years, goalkeeper Gianluigi Buffon said after a 1-0 playoff defeat to Sweden pushed them to the brink of disaster.
Captain Buffon — bidding to reach a record sixth World Cup finals in Russia — is one of the last survivors of Italy’s golden generation of 2006 World Cup winners.
But an Azzurri performance in Stockholm branded “ugly and confused” leaves Italy with all to play for in Monday’s second leg in Milan to avoid failing to qualify for the World Cup finals for the first time since 1958.
“We need to be as clear-headed as possible to go to the World Cup,” said Buffon, who conceded a shot by Swedish substitute Jakob Johansson that was deflected by Daniele De Rossi.
“We know we’ve lost, but we have another 90 minutes to overcome this complicated situation. The first rule is not to cry over it,” he told TMW radio.
“I expect a full San Siro to carry this team through, I don’t want to think it’s the game of life, but I’m convinced that with the help of the public we will do it.
“We must be confident Monday, otherwise we have already lost.”
The 39-year-old added: “You have to keep your head high and your shoulders straight. There are another 90 minutes and we want to make the most of it, we are strong.”
But former Italian international Andrea Pirlo believes it is dangerous for the four-time World Cup winners to rely too heavily on the atmosphere generated by 65,000 frenetic fans in the San Siro to squeeze through.
“The San Siro doesn’t score, I’ve never seen a fan score,” said Pirlo, a member of the 2006 World Cup winning team who announced this week he was retiring from football.
Pirlo acknowledged that the team “seemed frustrated,” but he insisted he was quietly confident of getting through, saying: “I like this Italy.”
The last time Italy failed to reach the World Cup was for the 1958 tournament in Sweden.
But Gian Piero Ventura’s side were already under pressure going into the tie after a disappointing end to their Group G campaign that featured a 3-0 loss in Spain and a 1-1 home draw with Macedonia.
“I feel so strongly that we will qualify because I saw the players in the dressing room and they were angry,” said Ventura.
– New blood lacking –
But Ventura’s tactics are under the microscope along with Italy’s failure to bring in sufficient new blood over the past decade. Buffon is one of three 2006 World Cup-winning veterans — the others are Daniele De Rossi, 34, and 36-year-old defender Andrea Barzagli — still in the team.
Ventura failed to find room in his 3-5-2 formation for in-form Napoli winger Lorenzo Insigne and Andrea Belotti and Ciro Immobile failed to find the impetus up front.
In more bad news for Italy, influential midfielder Marco Verratti picked up a yellow card which means the Paris Saint-Germain playmaker is banned for the second leg.
Italy did bring on Insigne for Verratti in the final 15 minutes and the substitute dragged a shot wide in injury time.
Italy last won the World Cup in 2006 under Marcello Lippi. They hoped that with their experience, talent and skill they could continue to prevail for years to come.
But despite a run to the Euro 2012 final they have failed to deliver consistently on the big stage, although former Juventus boss Antonio Conte led them to the quarter-finals of Euro 2016 with wins over Spain and Belgium.
After Conte’s departure for Chelsea, Italy turned to veteran journeyman Ventura, who had coached clubs in Italy at all levels over 41 years.
The 69-year-old has often however appeared overwhelmed by the task, preferring to stick to his 4-2-4 tactical system to the detriment of the creativity of stars such as Verratti, Insigne, Immobile and Belotti.
Confidence took a knock during a tough qualifying campaign during a bad 3-0 defeat to Spain but it had never been in doubt in Italian minds that they would not be in Russia.
“A World Cup without Italy is unthinkable,” had been the catchphrase of most Italians. Italy have missed on football’s showpiece just twice — the first in 1930 when they chose not to compete and in 1958 when they did not qualify.
For Buffon, ironically, his career could end as it began two decades ago during Italy’s last World Cup play-off against Russia when he came on as a substitute aged 19.
Now the holder of a record 174 caps, Buffon will be hoping the outcome will be the same as when Italy qualified through a play-off against Russia for France 1998.