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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.

Relegation picture: The situation for Newcastle, Sunderland, Norwich

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This is tight, tense and getting horrible for the three teams battling it out at the bottom.

We know Aston Villa has already been relegated but three teams — Norwich City, Sunderland and Newcastle United — are in a dogfight to avoid relegation.

Three into two doesn’t go.

[ VIDEO: Premier League highlights

Just two points separates the three aforementioned teams going into the final two weeks of the season. Plus, Crystal Palace isn’t out of the picture either as they have 39 points but Alan Pardew‘s side should be fine. Just.

Newcastle United is the form team as Rafael Benitez’s side is now unbeaten in four games and grabbed a huge 1-0 win against Palace on Saturday, while Sunderland is solid under Sam Allardyce and have lost just once in eight games but have six draws in that span.

[ MORE: Premier League schedule | standings

Norwich is reeling after three defeats on the spin and Alex Neil‘s side is running out of time as they lost 1-0 at Arsenal on Saturday despite a brave, battling display.

Below is a look at the relegation picture, plus the remaining fixtures for all three teams as Newcastle have just two games left, while both Sunderland and Norwich have three.

Who do you think will survive out of these three teams?


Newcastle United – 17th place, 33 points

May 7 – Aston Villa (A)
May 15 – Tottenham Hotspur (H)

Sunderland – 18th place, 32 points

May 7 – Chelsea (H)
May 11 – Everton (H)
May 15 – Watford (A)

Norwich City – 19th place, 31 points

May 7 – Manchester United (H)
May 11 – Watford (H)
May 15 – Everton (A)


Looking at the schedules above, Newcastle has a great chance of getting at least three points from their remaining two games with an away trip to Aston Villa up next, plus if Tottenham is out of the title race heading into the final game then it may be a great chance to pick up another three points at home.

Sunderland will find it tough going against Chelsea and Everton but home advantage will be key, while the final game away at Watford, a team who has nothing to play for, could be the crucial one. They hold their own destiny in their hands. Win all three and they will stay up.

As for Norwich, they won’t expect much against Manchester United next up but they will fancy their chances of picking up at least four points against Watford and Everton in their final two games. Simply put, nobody knows which of these two teams will go down and it’s likely to stay that way until the final minutes of the season.

Arsenal 1-0 Norwich City: Amid protests, Welbeck pulls Gunners third

LONDON, ENGLAND - APRIL 30:  Danny Welbeck of Arsenal celebrates scoring the opening goal with Olivier Giroud (R) during the Barclays Premier League match between Arsenal and Norwich City at The Emirates Stadium on April 30, 2016 in London, England  (Photo by Paul Gilham/Getty Images)
Photo by Paul Gilham/Getty Images
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  • Gunners scoreless streak ends at 200 mins
  • Welbeck subs on to score
  • Norwich stay 19th

Danny Welbeck‘s second-half goal was enough to give Arsenal a much-needed three points from Norwich City’s visit on Saturday.

The Emirates Stadium started with protests, and the Gunners didn’t do a ton to quiet Arsene Wenger‘s critics in the 1-0 match.

Arsenal does, however, pull three points clear of fourth place Manchester City, which plays Sunday at Southampton.

Norwich, meanwhile, is two points back of Newcastle and one point back of Sunderland as the race for 17th continues in England. Newcastle has played one more match than each of its competitors.

[ MORE: Watch full PL match replays ]

Arsenal couldn’t find a way through Norwich City’s defense in the first half, entering the break without scoring a goal in 187 minutes. After taking a 2-0 lead in the 38th minute against West Brom, the Gunners were blanked in the second half, then in a 0-0 draw with Sunderland.

Norwich had a chance or two during a late 10-minute run of play, but couldn’t beat Petr Cech. Both sides had 7 shots, but Norwich was the only to put any on frame with three.

[ MORE: Latest Premier League standings ]

[ MORE: Full lineups, stats, box score ]

Welbeck subbed on for Arsenal, joining Olivier Giroud up top and quickly making an impact with a shot that deflected to beat John Ruddy and give Arsenal the match’s first goal.

The Gunners still carried the play, though the chance for a pivotal point lurked with every Canaries moment of possession.

Mohamed Elneny took a phenomenal shot that Ruddy met with a similar save, when, in the 83rd minute he used the outside of his foot to swerve an effort that forced Ruddy into flight just to force a corner. Good-looking stuff.

PHOTOS: Supporters protest, support Arsene Wenger before Arsenal-Norwich

LONDON, ENGLAND - APRIL 30:  Arsenal supportes hold banners 'Time For Change' during the Barclays Premier League match between Arsenal and Norwich City at The Emirates Stadium on April 30, 2016 in London, England  (Photo by Paul Gilham/Getty Images)
Photo by Paul Gilham/Getty Images
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“Time for Change” read the sea of placards outside the Emirates Stadium on Saturday, as Arsenal fans protested the continued employment of its legendary manager.

Many consider this season a wasted opportunity for Arsenal to lay claim to a first Premier League title since 2003-04, and have laid the blame at the feet of manager Arsene Wenger.

[ MORE: Everton’s moving tribute to Hillsborough 96 ]

There were some expressing support for their beloved boss, and we’ve got all that and more below. The match is scoreless as halftime, as Arsenal continues to have trouble scoring against relegation threatened rivals.

LONDON, ENGLAND - APRIL 30: Arsenal supportes hold banners 'Time For Change' during the Barclays Premier League match between Arsenal and Norwich City at The Emirates Stadium on April 30, 2016 in London, England (Photo by Paul Gilham/Getty Images)
(Photo by Paul Gilham/Getty Images)
LONDON, ENGLAND - APRIL 30: (EDITORS NOTE: This image was processed using digital filters) Arsenal supporters hold a banner saying 'Arsene Thanks for the Memories But It's Time To Say Goodbye' prior the Barclays Premier League match between Arsenal and Norwich City at The Emirates Stadium on April 30, 2016 in London, England (Photo by Mike Hewitt/Getty Images)
(Photo by Mike Hewitt/Getty Images)
LONDON, ENGLAND - APRIL 30: An Arsenal supporter holds banner 'Proud of Arsene Ashamed of Fans' during the Barclays Premier League match between Arsenal and Norwich City at The Emirates Stadium on April 30, 2016 in London, England (Photo by Mike Hewitt/Getty Images)
(Photo by Mike Hewitt/Getty Images)
LONDON, ENGLAND - APRIL 30: A banner protesting to Arsene Wenger is seen prior to the Barclays Premier League match between Arsenal and Norwich City at The Emirates Stadium on April 30, 2016 in London, England. (Photo by Paul Gilham/Getty Images)
(Photo by Paul Gilham/Getty Images)

And some had some pretty good fun with the protests:

Sunderland hail “brilliant point” but Allardyce fuming at refs

STOKE ON TRENT, ENGLAND - APRIL 30: Sam Allardyce, manager of Sunderland reacts during the Barclays Premier League match between Stoke City and Sunderland at the Britannia Stadium on April 30, 2016 in Stoke on Trent, England.  (Photo by Gareth Copley/Getty Images)
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Sam Allardyce was fuming with the officials as Sunderland drew 1-1 at Stoke City on Saturday.

The Black Cats netted a last-gasp penalty kick via Jermain Defoe to move onto 32 points but slipped into the relegation zone courtesy of Newcastle United’s huge home win against Crystal Palace.

[ MORE: Deeney “sticks it to Villa” ]

Sunderland have a game in hand over Newcastle but they are a point behind. Things are getting very tight as two from Sunderland, Norwich and Newcastle will be relegated.

Speaking after the game, Allardyce feels his side continue to get unlucky with calls from officials and it is starting to wear thin with Big Sam.

“The disappointment is, how many points do they take away from us in this battle against relegation that cost us so dear?” Allardyce told Sky Sports. “All this rubbish about people saying it evens itself out, that’s the biggest load of rubbish I’ve ever heard in my life.

“We’ve had countless opportunities ourselves to win games, so we’ve got ourselves to blame as well but the last thing we want at this stage of the season, with so few games left, is to not get what we deserve. In the last two games, today and last week we certainly didn’t get what we deserved off the officials as far as I was concerned. But I am pleased he was brave enough in the last minute to give a penalty in against Jermain Defoe.”

On reflection, Allardyce agreed that it was a “brilliant point” for his team and but he still couldn’t resist another moan at the officials.

From the BBC:

“It is a brilliant point in the end but for me one that could have been a win rather than the draw,” Allardyce said. “Obviously they didn’t deserve their goal because it was a blatant foul on Younes Kaboul and we should have had a penalty when Geoff Cameron flicks the ball with his hand and referee and his assistant don’t see it. Those things have gone against us today which has not allowed us to be in a position to win it. It is a very precious point and in the end the referee was brave and good enough to make the right decision for us for the penalty.”

The incidents in question are certainly debatable. For Stoke’s goal it did appear that Peter Crouch had his arms on Kaboul when he nodded down for Arnautovic and Allardyce can have complaints about that. Last week a handball decision against Per Mertesacker didn’t go Sunderland’s way and if you add up those two calls, that’s an extra four points for the Black Cats.

[ VIDEO: Townsend scores screamer

However, with Sunderland not really at the races at Stoke and still managing to grind out a point to keep their PL fate in their own hands, he has to be happy enough.

They now have home games against Chelsea and Everton coming up, with the final game of the season away at Watford. Seven points from that will see Newcastle unable to mathematically finish above them.

It’s a big ask but what if Big Sam starts getting some big decisions in Sunderland’s favor?