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Criscito, finito: Match-fixing probe claims Italy’s starting left back

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Alternate title: 2006 does not apply

Domenico Criscito, one of Italy’s projected starting XI at Euro 2012 (and a target of the country’s latest match-fixing probe), has been forced out of the country’s squad of Euro 2012. So yeah, this is a big deal.

How big is this Italian match-fixing probe getting? Aside from the list of prominent names being arrested in conjunction with the investigation (including Juventus head coach Antonio Conte), the controversy’s compelled James Richardson to write.

The host of the internet’s “it” podcast (The Guardian’s Football Weekly) usually confines his benign musings to audio or video. This week, the former Football Italia host has deemed Italy’s latest crisis sufficiently important to take to a keyboard. Groovy.

By “latest crisis”, I mean to allude to 2006. In the middle of calciopoli, Italy won World Cup 2006. If you bleed Azzurri blue, you might look at that data point and suggest Italy plays its best soccer under fire. Bring on the investigation, somebody (somewhere) is saying. Our team plays better when they’re under pressure.

To which I’d retort: “What team?”

In soccer years, it’s been a long time since Italy was good. How long? Well, way back when Italy was a factor at major tournaments (2006), Zinadine Zidane was still playing. Michael Owen had just returned from Real Madrid, Manchester City’s top scorer was Andy Cole, and Giuseppe Rossi had just debuted … for Manchester United.

Since 2006, it’s been all downhill for the four-time world champions. They barely make it out of what was ultimately (and surprisingly) a bad group at Euro 2008. They didn’t make it out of their group in World Cup 2010, and drawn in the same group as Spain, Croatia and Ireland, there’s a good chance they won’t get out of their group in Euro 2012.

Head coach Cesare Prandelli has no choice but to select an unremarkable collection of talent that reflects a stoic period in Italian player development. Perhaps in Brazil the likes of Mario Balotelli and Sebastian Giovinco will be the finished product. In Poland, their most accomplished attacker is 34-year-old Toto Di Natale (10 goals in 36 appearances).

At best, Italy is an underdog to beat out Croatia (who has never lost to Italy) for Group C’s second quarterfinal spot. Even if we factor in a “coming together” factor, they still look like a team riding an expired reputation. Unless Slaven Bilic’s Croatia plays to his country’s unreasonably low expectations, Italy’s in line for another major competition disappointment.

And all that is before factoring in yesterday’s news. Zenit St. Petersburg’s Domenico Criscito, who has spent over two years as Italy’s first choice left back, was forced to pull out of the squad after his room was searched by police in an early Monday raid. You can’t help but feel that were he not part of the team slatted for Euro 2012, he might have been arrest. With Criscito’s Genoa home also combed-over by authorities, it may only be a matter of time (part of the reason for withdrawing).

According to the Italian soccer federation (the FIGC), Criscito’s maintaining his innocence. He’s also sorry about the distraction he’s brought the team, part of an obligatory response. What’s he supposed to say? That the team thrives amid controversy? And he’s going the squad a service?

Best case scenario, for Italy: Criscito is as innocent as he claims, and his absence ends up being inconsequential. No team wants to lose a starter, but Italy’s got options. Giorgio Chiellini is a natural central defender, but he’s coming off a great year on the left for Juventus. The team also has Palermo’s Federico Balzaretti, one of Serie A’s best left backs. Are either of them Criscito? Over Italy’s three crucial group stage games, there may not be a difference.

The distraction of Criscito, however, could have taken the team down. The margins are so thin for Italy, a team that will have to break their Croatia cruse if they’re to make the quarterfinals. Having Criscito around may have provided a slight benefit on the pitch, but off the field, it could have undermined the entire tournament.

ProSoccerTalk is doing its best to keep you up to date on what’s going on in Poland and Ukraine. Check out the site’s Euro 2012 page and look at the site’s previews, predictions, and coverage of all the events defining UEFA’s championship.

WATCH: NBC to stream USWNT, every CONCACAF Women’s Olympic Qualifying game

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The CONCACAF Olympic Qualifying Championships kick off on Wednesday and NBC Sports will be streaming all 15 games of the tournament over the next 11 days.

Every single game will be streamed live online or on the app via NBC Sports Live Extra, in addition to up to four matches airing on NBCSN.

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The eight-team tournament takes place from Feb. 10-21 in Houston and Frisco, Texas, with the top two teams advancing to the 2016 Rio Olympics.

Below is a full schedule of the games.

2016 CONCACAF Women’s Olympic Qualifying Championship Schedule

Frisco, Texas – Toyota Stadium
Houston, Texas – BBVA Compass Stadium
Times U.S. Central (U.S. Eastern in parentheses)

FIRST ROUND
Group A: USA, Puerto Rico, Mexico, Costa Rica
Group B: Canada, Guatemala, Trinidad & Tobago, Guyana

Wednesday, Feb. 10 (Frisco)
Puerto Rico vs. Mexico                                   5 p.m. (6 p.m.)
USA vs. Costa Rica                                    7:30 p.m. (8:30 p.m.)

Thursday, Feb. 11 (Houston)
Guatemala vs. Trinidad & Tobago                  5 p.m. (6 p.m.)
Canada vs. Guyana                                           7:30 p.m. (8:30 p.m.)

Saturday, Feb. 13 (Frisco)
Costa Rica vs. Puerto Rico                              12:30 p.m. (1:30 p.m.)
USA vs. Mexico                                                 3 p.m. (4 p.m.) NBCSN at 9:30 p.m. ET

Sunday, Feb. 14 (Houston)
Guyana vs. Guatemala                                     12:30 p.m. (1:30 p.m.)
Trinidad vs. Canada                                          3 p.m. (4 p.m.)

Monday, Feb. 15 (Frisco)
Mexico vs. Costa Rica                                       5 p.m. (6 p.m.)
USA vs. Puerto Rico                                          7:30 p.m. (8:30 p.m.) LIVE on NBCSN

Tuesday, Feb. 16 (Houston)
Trinidad & Tobago vs. Guyana                         5 p.m. (6 p.m.)
Canada vs. Guatemala                                      7:30 p.m. (8:30 p.m.)

SEMIFINALS

Friday, Feb. 19 (Houston)
Group B winner vs. Group A runner-up          4:30 p.m. (5:30 p.m.) ***
Group A winner vs. Group B runner-up          7:30 p.m. (8:30 p.m.) ***

FINAL

Sunday, Feb. 21 (Houston)
Semifinal winners                                            4 p.m. (5 p.m.) NBCSN at 11 p.m.

***USA’s semifinal, should the USA advance, will air LIVE on NBCSN

Sunderland’s Adam Johnson admits child sex charge

BRADFORD, ENGLAND - FEBRUARY 10:  Adam Johnson arrives with girlfriend Stacey Flounders at the Crown Court on February 10, 2016 in Bradford, England. The Sunderland FC midfielder, aged 28 and from Castle Eden, County Durham, is on trial having previously denied three counts of sexual activity with a child and one count of grooming. He has one daughter.  (Photo by Nigel Roddis/Getty Images)
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Premier League winger Adam Johnson has pleaded guilty to one count of sexual activity with a child, but the Sunderland player has denied two other charges.

Johnson, 28, appeared at Bradford Crown Court in Yorkshire, England on Wednesday and admitted the sex count and another count of grooming.

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The former Middlesbrough and Manchester City winger is an England international but has denied two other charges of having sex with a girl under the age of 16.

Up until Wednesday Johnson had pleaded not guilty but following legal talks he agreed to admit to two of the charges.

[ MORE: Reports claim Mourinho to United is “done deal” ]

The trial over the charges Johnson has denied will be held this Friday and a jury has been sworn in. The initial trial date of Aug. 3, 2015 was adjourned.

Johnson was originally arrested in March 2015 over allegations he had sex with a 15-year-old girl.

He played eight times in the final months of last season after the allegations became public, plus he has made 20 appearances in all competitions for Sunderland this season.

Report: Mourinho tells friends he will be new Man United manager

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Numerous reports from the British tabloids claim former Chelsea manager Jose Mourinho has told close friends he will take charge of Manchester United this summer.

[ MORE: What is USMNT’s best XI? ]

Both the Daily Express and the Daily Mirror have plastered headlines such as “Mourinho: Takes it as red” and “United job is mine” across their backpages on Wednesday morning, while the Daily Mail say Mourinho believes it’s a “done deal” for him to take over at Old Trafford.

Mourinho, 53, was fired by Chelsea in December just seven months after leading the Blues to the Premier League title.

The Portuguese coach has won three PL trophies in five full seasons in England but Chelsea’s dramatic collapse this season saw them floundering towards the relegation zone rather than fighting to defend their crown.

[ MORE: Arsenal, Spurs to contend for PL title? ]

With Louis Van Gaal‘s long-time future at United in question — the veteran Dutch coach, 64, has a deal through the end of the 2016-17 season — and the Red Devils six points off the top four in the PL despite sepnding over $375 million on new players in the past 18 months, it is believed that United’s executive vice-chairman Ed Woodward is under pressure to appoint a manager capable of returning United back to title contenders and perennial challengers in Europe.

On Tuesday it was reported that United had reached out to reps of Tottenham manager Mauricio Pochettino, and it certainly seems like they’re assessing their options before giving LVG even more money to spend this summer, if he’s still around.

If United decide to make a change, Mourinho fits the bill.

At least in terms of winning trophies and attracting the best players on the planet which will be increasingly necessary for United to stay in touch with crosstown rivals Manchester City who will be managed by one of Mourinho’s great managerial foes, Pep Guardiola, from next season. After winning the UEFA Champions League with FC Porto and Inter Milan, the eccentric yet brilliant coach has also won league titles in Portugal, England, Italy and Spain. Following the debacles on and off the pitch this season at Chelsea, Mourinho needs a chance to prove himself and be in charge of a rebuilding project. He wants to stay in England and after being fired by Chelsea twice in his career, you get the sense that United is the only other club befitting of his reputation that can offer him a job he deems up to his standards.

After Sir Alex Ferguson retired in 2013, it is believed the United’s hierarchy turned down the chance to appoint Mourinho as they didn’t want the media circus and the antics which come from hiring Mourinho. Now, though, it’s all about winning and Mourinho will be United’s best chance of transitioning from the disappointing David Moyes era and the so far underwhelming spell since Van Gaal’s been in charge.

Seven unheralded stars of this Premier League season

during the Barclays Premier League match between A.F.C. Bournemouth and Tottenham Hotspur at Vitality Stadium on October 25, 2015 in Bournemouth, England.
Photo by Jordan Mansfield/Getty Images
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Look, it’s been a crazy year in the Premier League. Leicester City is top by five points, Chelsea is a bottom-half side, and not one of the league’s top three scorers hails from a team in last season’s Top Four.

So it follows that among the league’s other statistical leaders — advanced and traditional — are some surprisingly shining stars.

[ MORE: West Ham 3-2 Liverpool | Coutinho’s slick free kick ]

Or at least they aren’t mentioned a ton. We plan to rectify that here. By no means do we claim these statistical leaders without fault this season, but hats off to the good they’ve done (or, in some cases, the pain they’ve felt).

Most saves in a starring role

You wouldn’t know it from the goal totals these past few weeks, but Stoke City’s Jack Butland has been playing otherworldly between the sticks. His 87 saves lead the Premier League, and the Potters would be in the thick of a relegation battle if he hadn’t shone as brightly.

Ironman

Eleven players have played every minute of their side’s Premier League campaign this season (a 12th, Gareth Barry, has played all but one). Four of those 11 are goalkeepers, and six more are defenders. The only midfielder? Bournemouth’s South African standout Andrew Surman (above).

Top thief, too

Surman is also the league leader in interceptions with 92. The next seven players on the list, headed by Chris Smalling, are all defenders.

The most under-appreciated of the underdogs

Kante (Mark Thompson / Getty Images)

Leicester City has been fantastic, and people are quick to name Riyad Mahrez and Jamie Vardy as big parts of the table-topping effort at King Power Stadium. Then, perhaps they’ll say something about goalkeeper Kaspar Schmeichel or defender Wes Morgan.

But how about the Premier League’s leader in tackles. Midfielder N'Golo Kante (right) has 115 tackles, 12 more than second-best Yohan Cabaye of Crystal Palace.

An all-expense paid journey to the massage parlor for…

Five players have been fouled more than 50 times this year, and you need to be around the ball a lot for that to happen. The four also-rans are Southampton’s Sadio Mane, Swansea City’s Andre Ayew, Everton’s Ross Barkley and Mahrez, but the man who deserved to skip to the head of the ice bath line is from Crystal Palace: Wilfried Zaha has been fouled 59 times. And that’s the amount of times the foulers were caught in the act.

Let Newcastle United’s captain climb in second, though; Fabricio Coloccini‘s 47 blocked shots are eight more than runners-up Neil Taylor (Swans) and Christian Fuchs (Leicester).

A man possessed

He hasn’t been heralded like a year ago, and most witnesses would tell you the midfielder’s been playing much worse. No, touches don’t equal success, but Cesc Fabregas‘ 2,027 credited touches are 74 more than the next player despite the fact that he’s the only player in the top four to have started less than 25 matches. He’s also completed 83 more passes than the closest competitor (Surman).

All-around stars

Advanced stats site Squawka uses an algorithm to generate statistics on who just might be the most complete player in the Premier League.

It’s certainly not foolproof, but the best player per-90 minutes would likely surprise you: Mousa Dembele of Spurs (Minimum 15 matches).

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As for who’s produced the most when numbers are averaged out over the entire game, one man rises to the top: Ross Barkley.

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