STOCKHOLM – Sweden surprised Italy 1-0 on Friday in the first leg of their playoffs to determine which side will go to Russia for the 2018 World Cup.
The four-time world champions were flat against an energetic Swedish side which disrupted the Azzurri attack with an aggressive high press.
Ola Toivonen set the tone for the hosts in the 2nd minute with an elbow to Leonardo Bonucci, signaling Sweden’s intention to exert pressure on a somewhat shaky Italian defense.
Center-back Giorgio Chiellini struggled to play the ball out, creating chances for the Swedes and hampering Italy’s attack, led Friday by Andrea Belotti in the absence of the injured Simone Zaza.
Belotti had the visitors’ only opportunity of the first half, but his header off a great cross by Matteo Darmian missed the target with Swedish goalkeeper Robin Olsen out of position.
Sweden started the second half in a lower gear and Italy seized the initiative on offense, with Antonio Candreva forcing a save from Olsen.
What turned out to be the winning goal came in the 61st minute, when Toivonen won the ball after a throw-in and served it up for Jakob Johansson, whose shot deflected off Daniele De Rossi and past Italian keeper Gianluigi Buffon.
Darmian looked set to bring Italy level, but his effort hit the post and Sweden managed to hang on for the upset.
The second leg will be played on Monday in Milan.