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.

What’s another $35 million? Man City sign Danilo from Real Madrid

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MANCHESTER, England (AP) Danilo will be fulfilling his ambition to play under Pep Guardiola after signing for Manchester City from Real Madrid on Sunday.

[ MORE: Sunday’s transfer rumor roundup | Saturday | Friday ]

The versatile Brazilian defender, who can play on either flank as well as at center back, signed a five-year contract to increase City’s threadbare options at full back.

“There has been strong interest from other clubs, but it has always been my ambition to play for Pep Guardiola,” Danilo said. “As soon as I heard of his interest, I knew immediately I wanted to be a City player.”

City has a shortage of wide defenders after releasing Gael Clichy, Pablo Zabaleta and Bacary Sagna last month and then allowing Aleksandar Kolarov to move to Italian side Roma on Saturday. Kyle Walker, who joined from Tottenham, was the only other full back available to City manager Pep Guardiola before the signing of Danilo.

[ MORE: Mourinho quells speculation of Gareth Bale to Man United ]

“Football is very dynamic and it requires quality players in every position, so I think a player who can play in different positions at a good level has an advantage, and becomes very important for the team as well,” said Danilo, who is awaiting his British work permit. “I prefer just to play. I don’t have a favorite position. I am used to playing as right-back but any time I’m on the pitch in the starting 11, I’m always happy.

“He (Guardiola) told me I’m ready and that I can play in several positions, right back, left back, midfield. I just hope to help him out as he expects.”

Danilo is leaving Madrid two years after joining from Porto, having won back-to-back Champions League titles and the Spanish title once. Financial details of the transfer to City were not disclosed.

Conte names Gary Cahill new Chelsea captain

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As expected, Gary Cahill has been named Chelsea’s next skipper following the departure of long-time talisman John Terry this summer.

[ MORE: Mourinho rules out speculation of Bale joining Man United ]

While Cahill is no stranger to captaining his side — which he did for much of last season — the honor has been bestowed upon him on a full-time basis now by manager Antonio Conte as Chelsea prepares for the 2017/18 Premier League campaign.

Conte insists though that while Cahill is the man to wear the armband going forward that the rest of the squad’s elder statesman must also take on leadership roles to help guide the club as they pursue back-to-back PL crowns.

“I think also we can have other captains in our team, it could be [Cesar] Azpilicueta, [David] Luiz, and also, in the future, it could be Thibaut Courtois, Cesc Fabregas,” Conte told the Evening Standard.

“I think every single player must improve in this [being personalities in the dressing room] and take more responsibility because we lost big players and we need now to find these new players to create this fundamental for Chelsea. It is very important for our future success to create this base.”

Transfer rumor roundup: Man United to swoop for Verratti?

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With the Premier League season lurking, several of England’s top clubs are looking to put the finishing touches on their summer with quality last-minute signings.

Manchester United has been in the market for a holding midfield this transfer window, with Chelsea’s Nemanja Matic and Eric Dier of Tottenham long linked to the Red Devils, but now another name could be made available to Jose Mourinho.

Marco Verratti is reportedly growing more and more tired at PSG, and while the Italian does still wish to move to Barcelona this summer, he would be open to signing with United if the Blaugrana don’t come calling.


Chelsea could be closing in on another young Brazilian talent, and Blues will be looking to beat out Man United and others for his services.

Fluminense forward Richarlison is the player of interest, and the Blues are prepared to duel with the Red Devils and AC Milan in order to secure the 20-year-old’s signature.


Meanwhile, Juventus is looking to Liverpool’s Emre Can to help out in the midfield after a strong season for the Reds in the Premier League.

Mourinho rules out speculation of Bale joining United

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Jose Mourinho has certainly done his best to help revamp Manchester United this summer with the additions of Romelu Lukaku and Victor Lindelof, however, one name can be ruled out from joining the Red Devils at this time.

[ MORE: West Ham signs Arnautovic for club-record fee ]

There’s been speculation for some time that Gareth Bale would return to England — and likely to United if he did make a comeback in the Premier League — but the Portuguese boss has slammed the door on those talks.

“The same [as Ronaldo],” Mourinho said when asked about Bale’s availability. “You have contacts and feelings, you understand things, and it was clear that Bale likes Madrid, the challenge and situation.

“They are in a very good situation now and I never felt a desire for him to leave, so why waste time on it? No.”

While Bale — and Cristiano Ronaldo — appear off the radar of Mourinho and Co. for now, the second-year United manager has suggested that he would like one or two more signings to be made available to him heading into the season.

Players like Nemanja Matic of Chelsea and Tottenham’s Eric Dier continue to be linked to the Red Devils, while Ivan Perisic has also been rumored to be closing in on a deal to Old Trafford.

“Names is difficult for me, the players belong to clubs and are in preseason,” he said. “The managers and owners are not happy if players talk about them — I’m the same.

“My plan for the evolution of the team, my second transfer window, was to get four players and get balance and make a better squad.

“But with the development of the market, I was getting the feedback from Mr Woodward and I repeat, the market is very difficult.

“If the club has no chance to give me the four players, I like my group and I go with them, but I still have the hope I can have a third player, and maybe a fourth.”