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Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 12 December 2018

Al Ain striker Marcus Berg expects Sweden to face rough Italy side in 2018 World Cup play-off

Swedes arrive at San Siro for second leg of tie against Azzurri with one-goal advantage, but they know experienced opponents will fight hard in must-win game

Referee Cuneyt Cakir, right, tries calming Italy goalkeeper Gianluigi Buffon, centre, and Sweden forward Marcus Berg in the first leg. Jonathan Nackstrand / AFP
Referee Cuneyt Cakir, right, tries calming Italy goalkeeper Gianluigi Buffon, centre, and Sweden forward Marcus Berg in the first leg. Jonathan Nackstrand / AFP

Marcus Berg, the Al Ain striker, picked up only the second red card of his long career at the tail-end of October.

He was one of two men sent off in the feisty 3-3 Arabian Gulf League draw with Sharjah.

Rugged centre-forward though he is, he does not make a habit of dismissals. But by his account, there are a number of Italians intent on changing that.

Berg anticipates a collision where rules will be stretched, tempers provoked and the match officials tested at San Siro in Milan on Monday as his Sweden attempt to consolidate a one-goal advantage in their World Cup play-off and condemn Italy to an ignoble place in history.

It is 60 years since a World Cup began without the Azzurri among the qualifiers. Hold out for 90 minutes, and Sweden will be at Russia 2018 in their place.

Berg detected symptoms of Italian panic and desperation from early in the combative first leg on Friday.

“They were trying to get me sent off from the beginning,” Berg said.

That contest started with a bloodied nose for Italy’s Leo Bonucci, who will wear a protective mask in Milan. A row erupted immediately afterwards about whether Ola Toivonen, whose elbow jabbed into Bonucci’s face, should have remained on the pitch.

Berg was booked for arguing in his colleague’s favour.

“After that,” he said, “the Italians kept falling down for everything, trying to get me red-carded, and they kept talking at the referee.”

Then he got his own back. “They did a lot of play-acting, but the fact is, they’re not very good actors,” Berg smiled.

Sweden, the tie’s underdogs, had edged joyously closer to a World Cup berth - thanks to Jakob Johansson’s deflected strike. Berg was then involved in confrontations with Daniele de Rossi and Giorgio Chiellini, two of the veterans in an Italian side that lacked dynamism.

Italy manager Gian Piero Ventura's job may hinge on the second leg of the World Cup play-off tie against Sweden. Claudio Villa / Getty Images
Italy manager Gian Piero Ventura's job may hinge on the second leg of the World Cup play-off tie against Sweden. Claudio Villa / Getty Images

As beleaguered manager Gian Piero Ventura suggested, his team had suffered in the face of a muscular Swedish approach. “We didn’t expect such a physical game,” Ventura muttered.

The manager faces difficult decisions on Monday night.

Thanks to a reckless challenge on Berg, Italy’s much-criticised midfielder Marco Verratti will miss the return game with a suspension. Ventura, whose future hinges on the outcome, is likely to make further changes to a team who have scored just three goals in five qualifiers.

The cases for including Napoli’s Lorenzo Insigne, used only as a substitute in Solna, and even Roma’s Stephan El Shaarwary, both of them in good club form, were made strongly by the slow football played in a first leg during which Italy recorded just three clear shots at goal, one on target.

“We know what is expected of us,” Ventura said, after voicing his scepticism about the refereeing of Cuneyt Cakir in Sweden.

“I have seen how determined the players are, from Gigi Buffon onwards through all the squad.”

A World Cup without Italy? Its a possibility that feels seismic and epochal to the Italian public.

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There will be 80,000 to back Ventura’s team at the Giuseppe Meazza arena. But if a survey carried out by the Gazzetta dello Sport speaks for the ticket holders, only a quarter of home fans truly believe in the likelihood of the four-time world champions doing enough - over 90, or 120 minutes - to erase the Swedish advantage.

The precedents are gloomy, too. In the history of major tournament play-offs involving European nations, a 1-0 lead from the home leg has, on four occasions out of four, been enough to secure progress.

The Spanish referee Antonio Mateu Lahoz will take charge, and Berg has already delivered him a message.

“The referee needs to be strong,” the Al Ain striker said. “We know we are only a small country, compared to Italy, but we will make it a real battle.”