Sweden v Italy
Friday, 19:45
Live on Sky Sports Football

Sweden a solid collective force
Perhaps understandably, much of the focus ahead of this match has been on a player who won't be playing for Sweden rather than one who will. "I'd never want Ibra against me, not even at 40 years and with a broken leg," said Italy's Daniele De Rossi this week. "The fact that there's no Ibrahimovic is an advantage for anyone who has to face them."

Italy, of course, are partly responsible for the big striker's international retirement, having put an end to Sweden's Euro 2016 hopes last summer. But while the home side on Friday night may now lack an obvious talisman, the Azzurri will write off Janne Andersson's side at their peril. Sweden are now a solid collective force and are hugely motivated to reach their first World Cup since 2006.

The chief goal threat for the hosts is Marcus Berg, who has six in his last four outings for the national team, while old stagers Seb Larsson and Andreas Granqvist are also important cogs in Andersson's machine. The big question is whether the creative nous of RB Leipzig's Emil Forsberg will be sufficient to break down that Italy backline. If he is off-form or tightly marked, this Sweden attack might look a touch one-dimensional.

Empty summer unthinkable for Italy
It was always going to be tough to finish top of a group with Spain in it, but Italy gave it a reasonable go until being beaten 3-0 in Madrid in September. Now they must negotiate nail-biting play-off - their first for a major tournament since 1998 - if they are to maintain a run of World Cup appearances dating back 60 years. The hosts when they missed out in 1958? Sweden, of course.

Coach Giampiero Ventura is confident that the Azzurri have the class to see off Sweden over two legs - "We are not taking into consideration the idea of not going to the World Cup" - but has been less convincing tactically since taking over from Antonio Conte. There have been experiments galore and only recently does he appear to have come back round to the 3-5-2 system that served Italy so well at Euro 2016.

The superb defensive unit formed by Gigi Buffon, Andrea Barzagli, Leonardo Bonucci and Giorgio Chiellini will surely be crucial in the first leg, and with Andrea Belotti still troubled by a knee issue, the responsibility of nicking an away goal likely to fall on the shoulders of Ciro Immobile. The Lazio striker has 14 league goals to his name already this term.

Azzurri would take a draw
Italy have won five of the last seven games between these sides, but only one of those meetings is really relevant: plenty of players who appeared in the Euro 2016 showdown in Toulouse two summers ago will be on duty at the Friends Arena. That one was an attritional affair, Italy only breaking through in the dying moments to snatch a 1-0 win.

More of the same can probably be expected on Friday. It's the first leg of a play-off, for a start, so both teams are likely to be circumspect. Sweden last lost on home soil over two years ago, so Italy might be hard pressed to take an advantage back home, but they would surely be delighted with a draw at 3.20 and have the experience in their ranks to do just that.

Thriller not on the cards
The goals rarely flow when Italy and Sweden play: of the last 19 meetings between the sides, only five have produced three goals or more. It's hard to imagine an open game on Friday night, so under 2.5 goals looks a solid enough pick at 1.58, but it's also worth considering the Correct Score market if the draw appeals. Ruling out 2-2, 3-3 and so on (by Dutching 0-0 and 1-1) boosts the odds to around 3.70.

Immobile the go-to man for Italy
It may be prudent to give the goalscorer markets a swerve given our expectations for the game, but those looking for a player to back should side with Immobile. He has been on fire in Serie A and was Italy's top scorer in qualifying Group G with six goals. 2.90 looks a decent price for him to notch.

Recommended Bet
Dutch back 0-0 and 1-1 correct scores at 3.70


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