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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.

Update on Hull’s Ryan Mason after he suffered a fractured skull

LONDON, ENGLAND - JANUARY 22: Ryan Mason of Hull City lies injured after the collision with Gary Cahill of Chelsea during the Premier League match between Chelsea and Hull City at Stamford Bridge on January 22, 2017 in London, England.  (Photo by Richard Heathcote/Getty Images)
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Hull City have released an update as to the status of midfielder Ryan Mason.

[ MORE: Pulisic signs new deal ]

The 25-year-old was injured in an aerial collision with Gary Cahill during Hull City’s 2-0 defeat at Chelsea on Sunday and it has been revealed that he fractured his skull.

Mason is currently at St Mary’s hospital in central London receiving treatment and he and his family have been visited by John Terry, Cahill and assistant manager Steve Holland of Chelsea.

Here’s what Hull had to say early on Monday about Mason’s current condition as he recovers from surgery.

The Club can confirm that Ryan has been visited this morning at St Mary’s Hospital by Club Captain Michael Dawson, Club Doctor Mark Waller, Head of Medical Rob Price and Club Secretary Matt Wild. Ryan has been speaking of the incident yesterday and will continue to be monitored at the hospital over the coming days where the Club will remain in close contact with Ryan, his family and the staff at St Mary’s.

Ryan and his family have also been extremely touched by the overwhelming support they have received  and would very much like to thank all of those who have posted such positive comments both on social media and in the press over the last 24 hours.

Tributes have poured in for Mason from across the soccer world following the horror injury after what looked like an innocuous aerial challenge with Cahill.

USMNT’s Christian Pulisic extends deal at Dortmund

Dortmund's Mario Goetze, left, celebrates with Christian Pulisic after scoring the first goal of his team during the Champions League Group F soccer match between Legia Warsaw and Dortmund at Stadion Wojska Polskiego in Warsaw, Poland, Wednesday, Sept. 14, 2016. (AP Photo/Alik Keplicz)
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U.S. national team star Christian Pulisic has signed a new deal at Borussia Dortmund.

Pulisic, 18, has extended his stay at the Westfalenstadion until 2020 and his new contract will end speculation surrounding his future at the Bundesliga giants.

In the past two transfer windows Pulisic has been linked with a move to the Premier League with Liverpool reportedly interested in his services but the young playmaker will remain with Thomas Tuchel’s side for the foreseeable future.

This season he has made 19 appearances for Dortmund in all competitions, scoring twice, and has become a regular started in the UEFA Champions League.

The Hershey, Pennsylvania native continues to be one of the most coveted young stars on the planet and after rising rapidly through the youth ranks at Dortmund he will continue to develop in a team which is renowned for not only giving talented youngsters a chance to shine but also nurturing them.

Pulisic has scored three goals in 11 appearances for the USMNT and will be a key part of Bruce Arena’s team in the 2018 World Cup qualifiers in March.


Wayne Rooney wants to remain at Man United, for now

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LONDON — Wayne Rooney became Manchester United’s all-time leading goalscorer on Saturday but his 250th goal for the Red Devils has inevitably thrown up plenty of questions about his future at Old Trafford.

[ VIDEO: Rooney’s best goals for United ]

Rooney, 31, was honored by the Football Writers’ Association at a tribute dinner in London on Sunday at the Savoy Hotel and spoke at length about his future with reports continuing to link him with a big-money move to China in the coming months and his manager Jose Mourinho saying the club won’t stand in his way if he wants to move on.

[ MORE: World reacts to Rooney’s record ]

Speaking with Sky Sports before the event Rooney revealed that although he isn’t happy at only playing a bit-part role at United this season under Mourinho, he is happy to stay at the club.

“I’m committed,” Rooney said. “I have been at the club for a long time. Football is a strange game. Anything can happen and things change very quickly but I am happy at Manchester United. Of course, as I have said before, I want to play more games. I am in a happy place, a good moment personally, so I think I have a year, with an option year to go. We will see what happens and what happens after that.”

Before going on stage to accept his award at the glitzy event, former England manager Roy Hodgson and current West Bromwich Albion captain (and Rooney’s long-time United teammate) Darren Fletcher spoke about the striker glowingly.

Rooney, now the all-time leading goalscorer for both England and United, posed for photos and signed autographs all night long.

He seemed overwhelmed with the award and it capped off a crazy 24 hours which saw him break Sir Bobby Charlton’s record to become United’s all-time leading scorer, celebrate the first birthday of his youngest child and then head to London for the tribute dinner alongside his wife Coleen.

Speaking to the FWA members (which included yours truly) and guests, Rooney also called for the media and players to come closer together in the future to help out the English national team.

“The media is a massive part of football and I’ve seen firsthand since I’ve become captain of Manchester United and England,” Rooney said. “I’ve recognized it has had a huge influence on the game and the players and especially the young English players because they are the ones who have to go out and perform. It’s tough. I also feel like it is sometimes a bit unfair. The one thing I think, for me, that should happen is we need to realize and the media need to realize that at this moment in time there is a huge gap between the media and the players. I think the quicker the media and players can come together and meet in the middle, then the better it is for English football.”

Much has been said about Rooney throughout his career but you cannot deny his quality and supreme goalscoring ability which will see him go down as a legendary figure for both England and Manchester United.

If he doesn’t end up in China in the not so distant future, he will have offers flooding in from the rest of the world.

MLS: Le Toux to join D.C., Timbers set to acquire Myers and more

Sebastien Le Toux, Tony Beltran
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Two teams are set to bring in experienced players ahead of the new season, while another veteran has said his goodbye to his former club.

[ FOLLOW: All of PST’s MLS coverage ]

D.C. United has reportedly signed veteran forward Sebastian Le Toux after spending last season with the Philadelphia Union and the Colorado Rapids.

According to SB Nation’s Black and Red United, Le Toux has inked a one-year deal with D.C. United. Le Toux has scored 57 goals in his time in MLS, with 50 of those goals coming with the Union.

Le Toux has also previously played for the New York Red Bulls, Vancouver Whitecaps and Seattle Sounders.


Meanwhile, the Portland Timbers are reportedly set to sign long-time Sporting KC defender Chance Myers, who spent the last nine seasons with the Western Conference side.

The 29-year-old had made 147 appearances for Sporting KC since joining MLS, while adding two goals over that span.


Dax McCarty posted a heartfelt message to New York Red Bulls fans, players and staff following the veteran’s move to the Chicago Fire.

The midfielder was recently traded to the Eastern Conference side after the spending the last five-and-half years with the Red Bulls, where McCarty served as the team’s captain.