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2014 World Cup team preview: Italy

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Getting to know…Italy
Gli azzurri are aiming to put a fifth star on their country’s crest. Italy have won the World Cup four times. They lifted the trophy the first time they entered (and hosted) the competition, and took it again the next time around. Then there was a wait of nearly forty years before Italy won again, this time in Spain. Their most recent win came in 2006, when the azzurri beat France in a penalty shootout. 

Italy didn’t do so hot in the last World Cup. Drawn into a group with Paraguay, Slovakia and New Zealand, they looked to be a lock to move on to the next round. Instead, they drew two and finished out by losing to Slovakia, finishing bottom of the group. The azzurri went on to redeem themselves at Euro 2012, however, where they wound up second only to Spain.

If you’re curious as to why Italy are the blues, when their tricolore flag is red, white, and green, it’s all down to royalty. That shade of azure blue comes from one of the royal houses that played a role in unifying Italy. The blue was then adopted in the seal of the Italian presidency, and is traditionally worn by Italian national teams.

Now, if that question comes up in a World Cup pub quiz, you’re all set.

Record in qualifying
Undefeated in ten, Italy took top in UEFA Group B.

But there are a few points to qualify here. First, Italy found themselves challenged by teams such as Armenia and Bulgaria – they’ll be running up against much stiffer competition in Brazil.

Second, nine of Italy’s 19 goals were scored by players not going to the World Cup. Dani Osvaldo, Alessandro Florenzi, and Mattia Destro were not selected, while Riccardo Montolivo was a last minute scratch due to injury. Cesare Prandelli is more about the system than the talents of the individuals, but this still may be cause for concern.

A look at Group D
Italy found themselves in a dangerous group, but not one that’s unbeatable.

Costa Rica are almost certain to go out, especially with two of their best players injured. The real struggle will be among Italy, Uruguay and England. Uruguay head to the tournament with a rather aged squad, but if Luis Suárez is fit, they’re almost certain to get through to the next round. Then again, England are likely prepared to sit back and close down an opponent, keeping a solid defense to ensure they progress.

In other words, this could very well be one of the groups in which advancement is determined by goal difference. Which could make things very exciting indeed.

Game schedule

Saturday, June 14 at 6 p.m. ET: England vs. Italy (Arena Amazonia, Manaus)

Friday, June 20 at 12 noon ET: Italy vs. Costa Rica (Arena Pernambuco, Recife)

Tuesday, June 24 at 12 noon ET: Italy vs. Uruguay (Estadio das Dunas, Natal)

Star player

Hands down, it’s Mario Balotelli. He lifted Italy to near-dizzying heights in the last European Championship, and if he’s on form, he’ll be the one pulling them through to the later stages.

Notice we’re talking “star” quality, here. If you’re looking for the key to Italy’s play, that lies with Andrea Pirlo. When the midfield maestro is at his silky-smooth best, Italy ticks along beautiful. But if the opposition man-marks Pirlo out of a game, the azzurri start to struggle.

But Balotelli is a star. He’s a star in the way he plays – he’s capable of getting himself into dangerous positions, where he’ll either produce a sublime finish in the tiniest amount of space, or, yes, win his side a penalty. The drama definitely follows wherever Balotelli goes. He’ll appeal to the referee, he’ll sulk if taken out of the game, he may even set off fireworks in his hotel room. But it’s worth it to watch him score goals.

Manager
Cesare Prandelli was brought on from Fiorentina in the summer of 2010, but unfortunately for the azzurri, he didn’t actually take the reins until after their dreadful World Cup. He then reworked the side, guiding them to the final in Euro 2012.

Prandelli is an interesting character, emphasizing coherence in the squad almost above all else. Players that violate his Code of Ethics will find themselves on the sidelines. He certainly plays favorites with the Italian players, but it can’t be denied that he knows what he’s doing. His Italy side plays a patient game with a rather slow build up – but don’t go calling them defensive. Let’s leave that old stereotype aside, shall we? They’re respectable enough at the back, but it’s the midfield play that makes them shine.

Secret weapon
Gianluigi Buffon. This will be the 36-year-old’s fourth World Cup, and his fourth as the starting goalkeeper for Italy. His time in South Africa was cut short, however, when he left at halftime in the first group stage game. Injury kept him out of the remaining matches – and we know how Italy fared.

Instead, the captain will want to replicate his performance at the 2006 tournament, when he let in just two goals, keeping five clean sheets. Known as “San Gigi”, it’s Buffon that will rescue Italy if the defense falls apart. While prone to occasional gaffs, he’s still one of the top goalkeepers in the world, and he’ll likely pull off at least one heroic save to prove it.

Prediction
Apparently people don’t like it when I joke about friendlies carrying great predictive value. But, while Italy have a strong squad, they’re not flashy, and they’re unlikely to make it past the quarterfinals. If they finish top of the group, they’ll most likely emerge from the Round of 16 to face Spain, where they’ll be outplayed as they were two years ago. If they finish second, I’m tipping Colombia to be the ones that send them home.

PL Sunday Preview: Man City hosts Hammers, Boro visits West Brom

SUNDERLAND, ENGLAND - AUGUST 21: Middlesborough manager Aitor Karanka looks on during the Premier League match between Sunderland FC and Middlesbrough FC at Stadium of Light on August 21, 2016 in Sunderland, England. (Photo by Mark Runnacles/Getty Images)
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These four clubs have a combined two losses so far in Premier League competition. Unfortunately for Middlesbrough and West Ham, outside league play was not so kind over the past four days.

Those two clubs were both ousted from cup competitions by inferior clubs, and must regroup to maintain their unbeaten league status on the road.

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West Brom vs. Middlesbrough — 8:30 a.m. ET, on NBCSN and NBCSports.com

A Sunday morning road trip for Middlesbrough was good to them last weekend, so why not again? Boro remains unbeaten in the league, having dispatched Sunderland last time out for their first win of the season, but Aitor Karanka will need to put a midweek loss to Fulham in the League Cup in the rear-view mirror.

[ MORE: Late Rashford strike lifts Manchester United ]

It’s been a mixed bag for West Brom thus far, with the high of their opening day win over Crystal Palace erased with a home Premier League loss to Everton and an even more disappointing result against League One minnows Northampton in the League Cup. Tony Pulis and the rest of the West Brom executives are under fire for not improving the squad with just days left in the transfer window.

INJURIES: West Brom OUT: Chris Brunt (knee). QUESTIONABLE: Brendan Galloway (hamstring), Jonny Evans (hip). | Middlesbrough OUT: Victor Valdes (hamstring), Marten De Roon (hamstring), George Friend (calf), Fabio (knee). QUESTIONABLE: Daniel Ayala (fitness), Bernardo Espinosa (fitness).

Manchester City vs. West Ham United — 11 a.m. ET, on NBCSN and NBCSports.com

Like Middlesbrough, West Ham is in good league form, but their midweek result in another competition will place a damper on this weekend’s events. The Hammers were ousted from the Europa League before the group stage for the second season in a row, falling to Romanian champions Astra Girugiu…for the second season in a row.

Last year, Slaven Bilic turned things around in three days, beating Arsenal at the Emirates just after Europa League elimination. This year, the road test is just as difficult, and with injuries to a number of key attackers, the Hammers will need to dig deep to turn things around.

[ MORE: Petr Cech says Arsenal is aiming for Premier League title ]

Manchester City fell to West Ham at home last season, and Pep Guardiola will be sure to make them remember. Willy Caballero is likely to continue in goal with Claudio Bravo having just arrived, and while it seems Manchester City has yet to be seriously tested in league play, the Argentinian and his back line have yet to keep a clean sheet.

INJURIES: Manchester City  OUT: Ilkay Gundogan (knee), Vincent Kompany (thigh), Claudio Bravo (preparation). QUESTIONABLE: Leroy Sane (fitness). West Ham  OUT: Sofiane Feghouli (hamstring), Andre Ayew (thigh), Andy Carroll (), Cresswell (knee), Henry (knee) QUESTIONABLE: Dimitri Payet (fitness), Manuel Lanzini (fitness), Havard Nordtveit (foot), Mark Noble (wrist).

MLS Snapshot: Toronto FC 0-1 Montreal Impact

MONTREAL, QC - MARCH 12:  Ignacio Piatti #10 of the Montreal Impact controls the ball during the MLS game against the New York Red Bulls at the Olympic Stadium on March 12, 2016 in Montreal, Quebec, Canada.  The Montreal Impact defeated the New York Red Bulls 3-0.  (Photo by Minas Panagiotakis/Getty Images)
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The game in 100 words (or less): A passionate but sloppy rivalry match saw Toronto stunned by 10-man Montreal at BMO Field. The Impact held strong against a toothless Toronto 2nd-half push, and they pinged a goal against the run of play inside the final 20 minutes to end Toronto’s seven-match unbeaten run. With Montreal’s Callum Mallace seeing red just before halftime, the hosts had little to offer Evan Bush’s goal, and Ignacio Piatti worked a goal out of nothing to earn the Impact three points. At least Toronto had a cool tifo:

Three moments that mattered:

44′ – A spotty first half came boiling over just before the break when Marco Delgado clipped Dominic Osorio on a breakaway. Steven Beitashour came trotting back towards the incident and was decked by Callum Mallace. A brawl developed and after the scuffle, Mallace was sent off. While the extra-curricular activity definitely warranted punishment, it’s controversial to conclude that Mallace’s actions warranted a straight red card.

65′ – Toronto poured pressure forward, and looked to the referee twice, who was unmoved. First Sebastian Giovinco went down under a clip from Laurent Ciman, who appeared to stick his leg out behind him and trip the Italian. Then, Jozy Altidore went to ground on a body check from Hassoun Camara, but again the referee shook his head. The US international looked to have toppled to the floor easily under pressure from . This double moment was pivotal in the match anyways, but became even more significant after Seba came off limping heavily, holding his inner thigh, substituted for Tsubasa Endoh.

73′ – Out of nothing, Montreal had a stunning lead. Evan Bush booted a goal kick to midfield, and the ball falls to Oduro who works hard to divert play to Piatti on the left edge of the box. The 31-year-old collected with a few expert touches, then suddenly one-on-one with Steven Bieteshour, Piatti deposited his 14th goal of the season inside the far post, leaving Alex Bono no chance.

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Man of the match: Ignacio Piatti

Goalscorers: Piatti 73′

MLS Snapshot: Philadelphia Union 2-0 Sporting KC

COLUMBUS, OH - MARCH 12:  Fabinho #33 of the Philadelphia Union controls the ball against the Columbus Crew SC on March 12, 2016 at MAPFRE Stadium in Columbus, Ohio.  (Photo by Jamie Sabau/Getty Images)
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The game in 100 words or lessPhiladelphia wasted an energetic start to the match, but the hosts found themselves with a man advantage shortly into the second half, and they’d take advantage, winning 1-0 at Talen Energy Stadium behind a goal from Roland Alberg, who had entered the field just two minutes before scoring. The Union were overall the better side, but the hosts weren’t without chances of their own, most notably watching Dom Dwyer miss moments before Alberg’s goal. It was all over for KC when Roger Espinoza was also sent off for a second yellow late in the match, seeing Philly bag a second with ticks on the clock.

Three moments that mattered

17′ – A whopping four missed chances plagued the otherwise positive start for the home side. First, Tranquillo Barnetta curled in a gorgeous effort that was acrobatically parried away by a leaping Alec Kann. Then, in the 11th and 14th minutes, a pair of low crosses from Fabinho along the face of goal fell just out of reach of a sliding C.J. Sapong. Finally, the 17th minute saw Chris Pontius fire just wide with a header on a free-kick.

59′ – Philadelphia was given an advantage the rest of the way when Jimmy Medranda was given his second yellow card for hauling down Keegan Rosenberry on the edge of the box. Mandranda had been cautioned earlier for dissent when he laid into the referee following a first-half foul call.

67′ – Just moments after Dwyer missed wide right on a breakaway, Philadelphia capitalized on their man advantage. Fabinho connected with substitute Roland Alberg, and the 26-year-old Dutchman let loose a curler into the top right for a 1-0 lead. There was no looking back.

[ FOLLOW: All of PST’s MLS coverageStandings | Stats | Schedule ]

Man of the match: Fabinho

Goalscorers: Alberg 67′, Barnetta 90+2′

Manuel Pellegrini hired to manage Chinese club Hebei China Fortune

SWANSEA, WALES - MAY 15:  Manuel Pellegrini, manager of Manchester City looks on after the Barclays Premier League match between Swansea City and Manchester City at the Liberty Stadium on May 15, 2016 in Swansea, Wales.  (Photo by Michael Steele/Getty Images)
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Former Manchester City boss Manuel Pellegrini has been hired by Chinese club Hebei China Fortune as the Chinese top flight adds another big name manager. He joins just three months after stepping down as manager of Manchester City in favor of Pep Guardiola.

The Chilean will match up with former Brazil manager Luiz Felipe Scolari, who currently heads current league leaders Guangzhou Evergrande, in his first game in charge on September 10. Evergrande sits 15 points adrift of Hebei in the table. Sven-Göran Eriksson also manages in the league, in charge of Guangzhou R&F.

Pellegrini inherits a squad that includes Ezequiel Lavezzi plus former Premier Leaguers Stephane M’bia, Gervinho, and Gael Kakuta. The club currently sits in fifth in the league table out of 16 teams, with seven matches remaining in the season.

Following Pellegrini’s departure from City, the 62-year-old said he wished to remain in the Premier League, but also that he would retire if he did not receive an offer that interested him.

Pellegrini replaces former Everton midfielder Li Tie, who worked previously under Marcelo Lippi at Evergrande before being hired as Hebei manager a year ago. Tie was in hot water after criticizing the Chinese national team selection process and travel planning in early July.