Zlatan Ibrahimovic feels his absence “lowered the level” of the Sweden squad, but Italy must make better use of Marco Verratti.
The 36-year-old had already retired from international duty before sustaining a serious knee injury, but spent much of his career in Italy with Juventus, Milan and Inter, so is the perfect person to discuss the World Cup play-off.
“These are going to be two great games, difficult for both sides,” Ibra told Sky Sport Italia.
“The teams will do everything to get through, so these are basically like cup finals. The play-offs are completely different to a group stage game.”
The first leg is in Stockholm on Friday evening, with the decider in Milan next Monday.
“Sweden are playing without pressure, because since I left, nobody expects much of them now, from the media to the fans. When I play, the level is raised, so it is lowered in my absence.
“Having said that, this squad remains a good collective, just with less responsibility on their shoulders. The players are not very experienced, but the project is ambitious.”
Would Ibrahimovic play for Sweden if they qualify for the 2018 World Cup in Russia?
“No, my story with the national team is closed, but then we’ll see what happens. It’d certainly be fun to go to Russia.”
Italy finished second in their group behind Spain, but look set to transform their tactics from 4-2-4 to a more common 3-5-2.
“Nobody is stronger than Verratti, but he needs to be used in the right way,” continued Zlatan of his former PSG teammate. “He is one of the best midfielders in the world, but has to play as a central figure in a largely defensive midfield.”
There is bad blood between Italy and Sweden stretching back to Euro 2004, when the Swedes drew 2-2 with neighbours Denmark to ensure both Scandinavians went through at the expense of the Azzurri.
“It was a normal game and the result was not fixed. Anyone who knows me will realise I do not accept this sort of thing. Of course, we know how it works, people always seek excuses, but these are just words.”