Jonas Ekstromer/TT via AP
An international break from soccer’s league season reared its mighty head once again as the countries of the world looked to maintain their momentum on the road to Russia in 2018.
Starting off with the marquee matchup of this batch of international games, Sweden held Italy to a scoreless draw, resulting in a 1-0 aggregate victory over the four-time champion Azzuri, which failed to qualify for the World Cup for the first time since 1958.
The Swedes’ lone goal was scored in the first leg last week by striker Jakob Johansson, who missed the second match’s post-game celebration after being stretchered off with an apparent knee injury.
The Italians are the only former World Cup champions to miss out on going to Russia, and the Azzurri fans showed their shock by leaving the world-famous San Siro in Milan in complete silence. This game probably represented the last international game for perennial Italian goalkeeper Gianluigi Buffon, a member of the Italy squad for every World Cup since 1998.
On the other hand, this was massive moment for Sweden. Qualifying for its first World Cup since 2006, the Nordic country managed this massive feat following the international retirement of one of icon Zlatan Ibrahimovic. The large-in-stature striker has teased at a return to the pitch in Russia next year and he may be needed since the injury to Johansson is troubling for an offense already struggling.
In a star-studded international friendly, France and Germany drew, 2-2. The man of the night was French striker Alexandre Lacazette, who had a brace on the evening. The newly transferred Arsenal man is having a bit of a resurgence and seems to be the frontrunner to lead France into Russia. However, despite his best efforts, Germany drew the game on a 93rd minute winner from Lars Stindl. Both teams have maintained their momentum and are primed and ready for the next international break.
Turning stateside, the floundering United States took on Euro 2016 semifinalist Portugal and managed a 1-1 draw. The Europeans missed star man Cristiano Ronaldo and the Americans chose not to start wunderkind Christian Pulisic.
Without the main offensive weapons from either side, unexpected heroes were forced to emerge. For the Portuguese, that man was left-back Vitorino Antunes. It was Antunes’s first international goal, and he has only accumulated 13 caps for his country since 2007.
For the Americans, one player left the game more notable than before but it was not for positive reasons. That player was Ethan Horvath, 22-year-old Club Brugge goalkeeper. The promising prospect tried to emerge as a frontrunner for the now-vacant U.S. goalkeeper position, but instead allowed a ball to roll in between his legs for a Portuguese goal.
With all 32 teams qualified for the World Cup in 2018 after this international break, the portrait of Russia has become clear. The futbol world is on edge in anticipation for the world famous tournament this summer.