Paris (AFP) – Italy coach Gian Piero Ventura insisted Tuesday the four-time world champions could overcome a tricky play-off draw against Sweden to reach the 2018 World Cup finals.
Italy will travel to Stockholm on Friday, November 10 and play at home at the San Siro in Milan three days later as they look to avoid missing out on the World Cup for the first time in 50 years.
“We have never ever taken into consideration the hypothesis of not going to the World Cup,” said Ventura.
The Republic of Ireland have been drawn against Denmark while Northern Ireland will tackle Switzerland and Croatia and Greece will contest the other two-legged Europe zone play-offs.
“Sweden are a strong opponent, who deserve the highest respect,” Ventura continued.
“On the road to the play-offs Sweden beat France in Stockholm and finished ahead of the Netherlands.
“We will be preparing for the double challenge in November with confidence and determination.”
The Italians were condemned to the play-offs after finishing runners-up to Spain in their qualifying group, but they have not missed a World Cup finals since 1958.
Gabriele Oriali, the Italy team manager who attended the draw in Zurich in place of Ventura, said: “I think it could have been better. But we accept this draw. We are Italy and we shouldn’t be afraid of anyone.
“We have optimism and history (on our side). Imagine a World Cup without Italy.”
Italy fared better against Sweden in recent years with the Azzurri winning 1-0 in a group stage meeting at Euro 2016 last year.
Sweden coach Janne Andersson said he expected “two tough games” as his side fight to reach a first World Cup finals since 2006.
“But it would have been the same with other countries. I’m happy we know now. Now we can start work,” he told Sky Sports News.
– Uphill task for Northern Ireland –
Northern Ireland coach Michael O’Neill admitted he faced an uphill task against the Swiss as he bids to steer his country to the finals for the first time since 1986.
The Northern Irish will play at home in the first leg on Thursday, November 9, before going to Switzerland for the return on Sunday, November 12.
“Switzerland had a great campaign though their group was one of the easiest. Our job is to make their life as difficult as possible,” he said.
“Having played Germany twice in the group it will set us up nicely for the match,” O’Neill said.
“Our aim is to take a lead to Switzerland and we had seven clean sheets in our qualifiers so we need a tight five when we go there.”
The Republic of Ireland need to keep up the form they showed at the end of qualifying when they eliminated Wales to reach the play-offs, their coach Martin O’Neill said.
They have the advantage of hosting Denmark in the second leg on November 14 after travelling for the first leg on November 11.
“We have momentum and that’s important,” O’Neill said. “We won the last two games to get here. I’m now concerned with the next couple of weeks and making sure my players don’t get injuries at club level.”
Croatia will host surprise Euro 2004 winners Greece in the first leg of their play-off on November 9.
Croatia’s coach Zlatko Dalic said the tie would be “a difficult job”, but added: “I’m optimistic.”
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