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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.

MLS Preview: Conference leaders meet as Philly head west to Colorado

COMMERCE CITY, COLORADO - APRIL 02:  Dillon Powers #8 of Colorado Rapids controls the ball against the Toronto FC at Dick's Sporting Goods Park on April 2, 2016 in Commerce City, Colorado. The Rapids defeated Toronto FC 1-0.  (Photo by Doug Pensinger/Getty Images)
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The weekend is nearing, which means another full slate of ten matches across Major League Soccer.

[ FOLLOW: All of PST’s MLS coverage ]

With Sporting KC and D.C. United kicking things off on Friday night, Saturday is jam-packed with eight matches before the league’s youngest clubs NYCFC and Orlando wrap up the action on Sunday.

Colorado Rapids vs. Philadelphia Union — Saturday, 9:00 p.m. ET

There’s not a misprint on the table, Colorado and Philadelphia are both at the top of their conferences. After sitting near the bottom of MLS for the past two seasons, Colorado has shocked everyone, currently leading the league in points (27) with the fewest goals conceded (9). On Saturday, the Rapids put their perfect 6-0 home record on the line when they host the Union, who currently lead the East by two points.

New York Red Bulls vs. Toronto FC — Saturday, 7:00 p.m. ET

Coming off of a massive 7-0 win in the Hudson River Derby against NYCFC, the Red Bulls will look to continue trending upwards when they host Toronto FC. Two of the preseason favorites to top the Eastern Conference, both sides are currently tied on points, although the Red Bulls have a game in hand. For Toronto, Sebastian Giovinco will be keen to prove Antonio Conte wrong after being left out of the Italy squad for EURO 2016 after the Italian boss talked down upon MLS.

[ MLS: Standings | Stats | Schedule ]

Montreal Impact vs. Los Angeles Galaxy — Saturday, 8:00 p.m. ET

Didier Drogba has scored in each of his last three starts, a streak he will look to keep alive against the Los Angeles Galaxy this weekend. While Drogba will be looking to score, Montreal must make sure their defense is in top form as the Galaxy have scored a league-high 25 goals through 11 matches.

Elsewhere around MLS

Sporting KC vs. D.C. United — Friday, 7:00 p.m. ET
Vancouver Whitecaps vs. Houston Dynamo — Saturday, 6:00 p.m. ET
Columbus Crew SC vs. Real Salt Lake — Saturday, 7:30 p.m. ET
New England Revolution vs. Seattle Sounders — Saturday, 7:30 p.m. ET
Chicago Fire vs. Portland Timbers — Saturday, 8:30 p.m. ET
San Jose Earthquakes vs. FC Dallas — Saturday, 10:30 p.m. ET
New York City FC vs. Orlando City SC — Sunday, 4:30 p.m. ET

Cantona claims ethnicity played role in Benzema, Ben Arfa France snubs

SHANGHAI, CHINA - APRIL 14:  Former Footballer Eric Cantona of France speaks during a press conference at the Shanghai Grand Theatre prior to the  Laureus World Sports Awards  on April 14, 2015 in Shanghai, China.  (Photo by Ian Walton/Getty Images for Laureus)
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Eric Cantona has made the headlines again, this time making some bold claims against France national team manager Didier Deschamps.

Cantona, a former Manchester United legend and French international, questioned whether Deschamps excluded Karim Benzema and Hatem Ben Arfa from the team due to their North African origins.

[ MORE: Skrtel set to leave Liverpool ]

Speaking to The Guardian, Cantona calls Benzema and Ben Arfa two of France’s best footballers, both of whom will not be playing for the national team this summer.

Benzema is a great player. Ben Arfa is a great player. But Deschamps, he has a really French name. Maybe he is the only one in France to have a truly French name. Nobody in his family mixed with anybody, you know.

So I’m not surprised he used the situation of Benzema not to take him. Especially after [French Prime Minister Manuel Valls] said he should not play for France. And Ben Arfa is maybe the best player in France today. But they have some origins. I am allowed to think about that.

One thing is for sure – Benzema and Ben Arfa are two of the best players in France and will not play the European Championship. And for sure, Benzema and Ben Arfa, their origins are north African. So, the debate is open.

Cantona’s view doesn’t hold much merit as Deschamps did not even have the option of selecting Benzema, the country’s active leading goalscorer. The Real Madrid striker is suspended by the federation, embroiled in a blackmail sex-tape scandal involving French teammate Mathieu Valbuena, who was also left off the EURO roster.

[ MORE: Three battles that could determine the Champions League final ]

France is an extremely diverse nation with a large North African population, Benzema of Algerian descent and Ben Arfa’s father a former Tunisian international. Both players were born in France and have received prior call-ups under Deschamps, with Cantona’s quite ridiculous comments likely to cause a stir before the EURO.

FA Cup will no longer have quarterfinal replays

HALIFAX, ENGLAND - NOVEMBER 09:  The FA Cup is seen prior to the FA Cup First Round match between FC Halifax and Bradford City  on November 9, 2014 in Halifax, England.  (Photo by Clive Rose/Getty Images)
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Starting in 2017, the FA Cup will no longer have replays in the quarterfinal round.

The decision was made in an effort to combat the congested English fixture list, which has been a topic of debate for years now.

[ MORE: Lukaku wants out at Everton ]

This season, Manchester United defeated West Ham in a quarterfinal replay before going on to win the competition.

In a statement released by the FA, these changes aim to add drama to the matches while eliminating an extra matchday needed for replays.

The revamped competition will see eight clubs battle it out over one weekend with each tie to be played to a finish on the day, adding to the drama and impact the competition has enjoyed in recent years.

Other new initiatives will be explored to ensure The FA Cup retains its status and appeal. These plans also form part of The FA’s commitment to help ease English football’s congested fixture schedule.

There will still be replays in the earlier rounds of the tournament, which allows lower level clubs the opportunity to earn a nice financial boost should they force a second match at a Premier League ground.

The Premier League is the only top league in Europe that does not take a winter break, a schedule that has been criticized by multiple managers, including Jurgen Klopp.

Judge hears arguments on US women’s team strike rights

HARRISON, NJ - MAY 30:  The United States team poses for a team picture before the match against the South Korea during an international friendly match at Red Bull Arena on May 30, 2015 in Harrison, New Jersey.  (Photo by Elsa/Getty Images)
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CHICAGO — A federal judge in Chicago has heard arguments whether the world champion U.S. women’s soccer team has the right to strike for improved conditions and wages before this year’s Olympics.

Lawyers for the U.S. Soccer Federation told Judge Sharon Johnson Coleman at a Thursday hearing that a no-strike clause is implied in a still-valid 2013 memorandum with players.

[ MORE: All of PST’s USWNT coverage ]

But a lawyer for the U.S. Women’s National Soccer Team Players Association balked at that claim. Jeffrey Kessler said the federation had “screwed up” by not securing a no-strike clause in writing and can’t argue three years later that such a provision is implied.

The union wants the option to strike before the Olympics start in August, but hasn’t said it will. Many players have voiced concern over gender equity in soccer.