Ibrahimovic's late equaliser leaves Italy hanging by a thread

Italy 1 Sweden 1
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The Independent Online

Even without Francesco Totti, Italy were within spitting distance of their first Group C win in a pulsating contest last night. Then, with five minutes remaining, Zlatan Ibrahimovic struck with a wonderfully deft flick to negate a first-half goal by Antonio Cassano.

Even without Francesco Totti, Italy were within spitting distance of their first Group C win in a pulsating contest last night. Then, with five minutes remaining, Zlatan Ibrahimovic struck with a wonderfully deft flick to negate a first-half goal by Antonio Cassano.

Cassano, the world's most expensive teenager when he moved from Bari to Roma for £18m in 2001, looked certain to be hailed as Italy's saviour for his part in a vastly improved performance. But Ibrahimovic's opportunism means that to stay in the competition, Italy have to beat the section's whipping boys, Bulgaria, and trust there is a decisive outcome to the Swedes' "derby" with Denmark.

The Azzurri could be squeezed out by a Scandinavian stalemate next Tuesday. If that match does result in a draw, they would need to beat Bulgaria by more than the 2-0 margin Denmark achieved yesterday.

It all adds up to a fraught few days for Italy's veteran coach, Giovanni Trapattoni, who may even be wishing he had taken the Tottenham managership.

Not only will he be without the shamed and suspended Totti, but his captain, Fabio Cannavaro, and the midfielder Gennaro Gattuso will also miss the match after each incurred a second yellow card in the finals.

Italy must go on the offensive. However, Trapattoni sounded a defensive note after this disappointment. "It's not that we decided we had the match won," he said in response to the suggestion that they had sat on their advantage. "You can't dominate for the whole 90 minutes against Sweden."

Totti's place here went to Cassano, who has been labelled the Italian Wayne Rooney by the media. On the evidence of the first hour, such comparisons are not fanciful. Born immediately after Italy's last tournament triumph, in the 1982 World Cup, Cassano joined Christian Vieri and Alessandro Del Piero in a three-pronged attack which frequently troubled Sweden.

Italy had also strengthened midfield, bringing in Gattuso and Andrea Pirlo. On a cool, almost chilly evening, that unit certainly were more energised than the anchoring trio were against Denmark in the baking heat of Guimaraes. There was a snap in their tackles and urgency to their support play.

Yet it was Sweden who created the first opening after 13 minutes when Freddie Ljungberg darted into the inside-left channel. A clever back-heeled pass wrong-footed Italy, only for its recipient, Ibrahimovic, to fire wildly over.

Nevertheless, Italy assumed control, with only a half-hearted penalty appeal as Ljungberg fell under Christian Panucci's challenge to interrupt their ascendancy. Sweden were badly exposed in wide positions, though on the two occasions that Vieri received the kind of crosses he normally devours, from Cassano and Gianluca Zambrotta, he headed over.

The junior partner in the attacking triumvirate was not nearly so profligate eight minutes before the break. Panucci, once of Chelsea, dribbled past two defenders before delivering an inviting centre from near the corner flag. Cassano stole a yard on his marker and met the ball with a stooping, glancing header which left Andreas Isaksson helpless in Sweden's goal.

Cassano might have repeated the feat on half-time, but with Panucci again picking him out, his header flew straight to the relieved keeper.

Italy nearly made the points safe from an overdue flash of virtuosity by Del Piero. In possession 18 yards out, but with Isaksson and a defender narrowing the angle, he chipped like a golfer hitting a wedge shot out of deep sand. As the ball arced towards the net, Andreas Jakobsson ran back to clear off the line.

The Italians looked increasingly content to close out the game at 1-0, Cassano giving way to the midfielder Stefano Fiore of Lazio. The risk inherent in the policy was underlined when a centre dropped into their six-yard box like a meteor, forcing Cannavaro to head narrowly over.

Tommy Soderberg and Lars Lagerback, the two Sweden coaches, threw on additional attackers and Italy were pushed ever deeper. Henrik Larsson, who reportedly interests Barcelona and Benfica now that his Celtic contract is close to ending, came to life with a run that ended with a pass to Mattias Jonson, whose shot was brilliantly saved by Gianluigi Buffon. Jonson also fluffed a free header, but Sweden's persistence was finally rewarded.

Amid the confusion created by a corner kick, Ibrahimovic ended a frantic game of head tennis by hooking an equaliser over Vieri on the line. Italy were stunned, but have a good opportunity to fill their expensively sponsored, multi-coloured boots against Bulgaria.

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