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.

Serie A: Juve keep winning to remain 1 point back of Napoli

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TURIN, Italy (AP) Juventus closed the gap on Serie A leader Napoli back to just one point as the six-time defending champion eased past Genoa 1-0 on Monday.

Douglas Costa scored in the 16th minute, the first conceded by Genoa in five league matches. It was a less than convincing performance from Juventus but it was never really troubled, as goalkeeper Wojciech Szczesny – standing in for the still-injured Gianluigi Buffon – was little more than a spectator.

“What was important was to win,” Juventus coach Massimiliano Allegri said. “At the end there was a bit of nervousness because we were lacking in energy a bit.

“We could have finished off the match in the first half, and again with a couple of occasions after the break. We didn’t manage to so compliments to Genoa.”

The battle for the Serie A title is shaping into a two-horse race. Juventus moved 10 points clear of third-placed Lazio, although the capital side has a match in hand.

“The season is still long and all those who are behind us can still get back into the race,” Allegri said. “It was important to stay in Napoli’s slipstream.”

Juventus needed to win after Napoli beat Atalanta 1-0 on Sunday.

Allegri’s side started brightly and had an early chance to take the lead but Genoa goalkeeper Mattia Perin did well to keep out a free kick from specialist Miralem Panic.

However, it did not take much longer to strike. Douglas Costa passed out left to Mario Mandzukic, who played a delightful return ball for the Brazil midfielder to slot into the bottom left corner.

League Cup semi: Man City take 2-1 lead into 2nd leg vs. Bristol

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Manchester City can move one step closer on Tuesday to claiming their first of four potential trophies this season, when Pep Guardiola‘s men take on Bristol City in the second leg of the League Cup semifinal.

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

After coming back to beat the Robins in the first leg at home, Man City must now go on the road and take care of business to reach the Feb. 25 final at Wembley Stadium. As he has done so many times — and so famously — in the sky blue of City, Sergio Aguero grabbed the late winner (91st minute — WATCH HERE) 14 days ago.

For a few not-so-insignificant periods of the game, Bristol were very much the aggressors and appeared more likely to make the score 2-0 than for City to get back to 1-1. Bobby Reid converted from the penalty spot in the 44th minute after her was brought down under John Stones‘ wild, sliding tackle. Kevin De Bruyne leveled things up 10 minutes into the second half, setting the stage for Aguero’s late heroics.

[ MORE: Alexis-for-Mkhi swap complete | De Bruyne’s new contract ]

Since the first leg on Jan. 9, City have failed in their bid to finish the PL season with an unbeaten record before bouncing back to beat Newcastle United on the weekend, courtesy of a hat trick from Aguero — Guardiola quotes, from Sport24:

“I said many times it was going to happen, we can lose, so (it is) important the reaction we have. Still we have 42 points to play (for). It is 14 games. It is a lot of games to play and difficult games like Saturday and like Liverpool. It is important to show the team is still there but I don’t have the feeling we give up.

“We want to go through to the final in the (League) Cup and the FA Cup, so (we have) a lot of games but I think the people have the desire to keep going, to keep going, to keep going.”

[ MORE: One dream January signing for each top-six side ]

Bristol, meanwhile, have fallen on hard times: it’s been nearly a month (Boxing Day, to be specific — five losses, one draw) since Lee Johnson’s side last won a game in any competition, and they’ve fallen from second to fifth in the Championship table — Johnson quotes, from the Guardian:

“We don’t want to be brave losers, we want to compete to win. It’s up to the players to be focused and tactically aware, and who knows what will happen if we can show the same quality as we have shown in the previous rounds?

“We have to make sure we’re really bold. If you’re going to deliver a corner, do it like you mean it. I’d rather fail bold than fail timid. We know we have to score. I hope Pep picks his absolute best team and we can give them a right go. I’m not sure you could go and play an under-23 side against us at the moment and I think he’ll know that.”

The winner of Arsenal versus Chelsea (0-0 after the first leg) awaits in the final.

The 2 Robbies: Alexis-Mkhitaryan Swap Becomes Reality

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Robbie Earle and Robbie Mustoe react to the Alexis Sanchez-Henrikh Mkhitaryan swap deal between Arsenal and Manchester United finally becoming reality (0:20), Swansea’s stunning 1-0 victory over Liverpool (9:20), Southampton’s much-needed draw with Spurs (22:30) and Watford’s decision to part ways with Marco Silva (36:20). The gents end the show sharing their memories of the late English striker, Cyrille Regis (39:45).

Join Earle & Mustoe on The 2 Robbies Football Show, Saturdays at 5pm ET. Listen on the NBCSports Radio App and call 855-323-4622 in the U.S. for lively passionate debate.

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Inter Milan sign Barcelona midfielder Rafinha on loan

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MILAN (AP) Inter Milan completed the signing of Barcelona midfielder Rafinha on loan until the end of the season, with a view to a permanent move.

Inter can sign the Brazil international permanently for $43 million plus $3.7 million in bonuses, and said on Monday that option “must be taken up before the end of the season.”

Rafinha, who was born in Sao Paulo, had been at Barcelona since 2006, when he joined its youth team. He spent the 2013-14 season on loan at Celta Vigo.

After nine months out after surgery on his right knee, he made his first appearance of the season last week as a late substitute in Barcelona’s Copa del Rey defeat at Espanyol.

“It’s an important stage in my life,” he said, “and I had a lot of desire to approach this new phase in my career.”

Inter has slipped to fourth in Serie A, 11 points behind leader Napoli.

It could slip out of the Champions League places if Roma wins its match in hand on Wednesday.

“I hope to play in as many matches as possible and help the team to reach our objective which is Champions League qualification,” Rafinha said.