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Abu Dhabi, UAESunday 24 June 2018

Buffon's experienced Italy favourites to beat Sweden in upcoming World Cup play-offs

At 40, it looks like 2018 will be last chance for veteran goalkeeper and 2006 tournament winner to play on global stage

Gianluigi Buffon has the challenge of guiding Italy to the 2018 World Cup finals in front of him. Andrew Medichini / AP Photo
Gianluigi Buffon has the challenge of guiding Italy to the 2018 World Cup finals in front of him. Andrew Medichini / AP Photo

Play-offs are unfamiliar territory for Italy.

To win four World Cups is to belong to a select class of nation who expect to reach tournaments via the main gates, chauffeur driven, rather than scuffle around for spare tickets at the back door.

That Italy are in Sweden on Friday night to negotiate the first 90 minutes of a two-legged tie-breaker for the right to be in Russia next June is one yardstick of how their stock has fallen lately.

There is a precedent, which one man recalls very vividly.

Twenty years ago, Italy faced a play-off against Russia to make the 1998 World Cup. Events seemed to be conspiring against them in the first Moscow leg. It was fearfully cold, snow was falling.

Just after half an hour had passed when the Azzurri goalkeeper, Gianluca Pagliuca collided with Andrei Kanchelskis, the Russian winger. Treatment could not mend Pagliuca and Italy’s manager Cesare Maldini turned to an uncapped teenager on his bench.

“Do you feel warmed up?” Maldini asked. “I’m ready,” replied Gianluigi Buffon, stifling a shiver, partly from nerves, partly from the sub-zero temperatures, and he took the field for the first of his 173 international caps.

Buffon conceded that night, an own goal by his friend and long-time club colleague Fabio Cannavaro, but Italy scored and went on to edge the tie 2-1 on aggregate. Buffon travelled that summer to the first of the five World Cups he has attended. He would win the trophy at his third attempt, in 2006.

Given that he turns 40 in January, he must anticipate that 2018 will be his last, should Italy overcome a Sweden who have already consigned Netherlands – from a tough group, won by France – to watching the World Cup at home next summer.

The symmetry, a pair of play-offs, both of them trips to Europe’s wintry north, to bookend his World Cup career, makes Buffon reflective. “Obviously I would rather we weren’t in a play-off, 20 years on, but the important thing is getting the right result,” he said.

The Italy he captains are favourites, by weight of experience and a fabled expertise in knockout football. But Buffon will have noted that his country have also sunk in the period of qualifying for Russia to their lowest ranking according to Fifa’s metrics of the last 20 years, dropping out of the world’s top 15.

Buffon was among those whose high standards slipped in the 3-0 defeat to Spain in September, the result that left them second in their group.

“We have to be wary of these games against Sweden,” he told Italian broadcasters, eager to celebrate his longevity.

“When I first started I was probably less respectful of opponents. But after many victories, some mistakes, some losses and many lessons, I have matured.

"I’ll go into this challenge with a clear idea and I’ll be calm.”

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Gian Piero Ventura, the eighth different manager Buffon has served, will not name an XI in Solna on Friday night that makes his goalkeeper feel grandfatherly.

Ventura has hinted that for the away leg, he will operate with a back three, perhaps shifting to four in defence in Milan for Monday’s return match.

Buffon can count on his long-term allies Andrea Barzagli, 36, Leo Bonucci, 30, and Giorgio Chiellini, 33, forming his central defence. Until Bonucci joined AC Milan in the summer, they were all colleagues and serial Serie A champions together at Buffon’s Juventus.

There will likely be another trio of thirty-somethings – Andrea Candreva, Marco Parolo and Daniele de Rossi – across midfield, and Ventura may well look to club form in selecting his forwards.

Ciro Immobile, rejuvenated at Lazio after frustrating spells at Borussia Dortmund and Sevilla, is the top scorer in Italy this season, with 14 Serie A goals.

Simone Zaza’s case for partnering Immobile against the Swedes are his nine goals from 11 games in the Primera Liga for Valencia. It is quite a turnaround given that, this time a year ago, Zaza was struggling to make any impression at all at West Ham United.

And firepower is at a premium for Italy. Ventura’s team have managed three goals in their last four qualifiers, dropping points against Spain and Macedonia and defeating Israel and Albania only narrowly.

“If we put in only a six-out-of-10 performance against Sweden we’ll lose,” Buffon warned.