KEIR RADNEDGE REPORTING —- Italian football tonight stands over the abyss of an unprecedented crisis as the Azzurri face Sweden in the Stadio Giuseppe Meazze at San Siro with World Cup status at play.

Italy, four times world champions, need to recover from a 1-0 defeat in Stockholm last week in the opening leg of their European play-off to avoid missing out on a place in the finals in Russia for the first time since 1958.

Failure will exacerbate the sense of crisis sparked by seemingly perpetual matchfixing scandals and underlined by the fading status of Italian clubs in European competition. All of this has been pointed up by the collapse into Chinese ownership of the once-great San Siro giants Internazionale and AC Milan.

Skipper Buffon . . . appeal to Italian fans

On that basis, the staging of the second leg in the Stadio Meazza illustrates all too clearly the realisation that Serie A has fallen behind the commercially aggressive English, Spanish and German leagues in terms of international visibility.

Even French clubs – as evinced by Paris Saint-Germain in their €222m purchase of Neymar – are grabbing the greater headlines.

Once upon a time Italian clubs could purchase the world’s best talent and home-grown players would never have dreamed of moving abroad. Now all of that has changed. Italy and Italian football are not what they were.

Tough draw

Even recently-retired playmaker Andrea Pirlo has admitted his fears for the outcome tonight.

Certainly Italy were unfortunate to have been drawn in a qualifying group including Spain. That saw Gian Piero Ventura’s men finish runners-up and forced into the do-or-die challenge of the play-offs.

At 69 Ventura is the oldest coach in Italy’s history and his own future in the job for which the FIGC could not attract a star name is on the line.

He complained about the physical nature of the first leg which left key defender Leonardo Bonucci with a broken nose – he will play with a face mask – though Sweden also complained about Italian gamesmanship.

Ventura said: “We are Italy and, if we qualify, I would like to be able to say that we did it by playing football. I don’t know what sort of game it will be but I hope it will be played in the correct spirit.”

The coach scrapped his favoured 4-2-4 formation for a 3-5-2 in Friday’s match and has added to the sense of uncertainty by offered few clues on how he will set up his team tonight and who will step in for suspended midfielder Marco Verratti.

Veteran captain and goalkeeper Gianluigi Buffon said the team were in a state of “high tension”. The 39-year-old added: “It’s an important match for us and our history. It’s important for football in our country that we qualify for the World Cup.”

Plea to fans

“I am approaching this like the eve of any important event. I‘m tense, but it’s the right amount of tension. Now we need the fans to get behind us all, leave behind their club jerseys – Juve, Milan, Inter, Rome or Napoli – because reversing this result is important for the nation. ”

Sweden captain Andreas Granqvist, who spent two years at Italian club Genoa, laughed off Italian whingeing about the first leg.

He told the Reuters agency: “As a defender, you have to be really tough, but in a good way. Of course there were some situations they were angry about, but this is football.”

Only Brazil have appeared at the finals more times (20) than the 18 appearances of Italy and Germany (in its various guises).