Italy's Mario Balotelli (9) heads the ball past England's Gary Cahill (5) and goalkeeper Joe Hart, left, to score Italy's second goal during the group D World Cup soccer match between England and Italy at the Arena da Amazonia in Manaus, Brazil, Saturday, June 14, 2014. (AP Photo/Marcio Jose Sanchez)

Balotelli’s winner sends Italy to 2-1 win over England

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An often open battle that continued an early trend of goal-laden matches could have tuned into the 2014 World Cup’s first true shootout. Instead, England was left to rue their inability to grasp a second score after full-time was blown in Manaus, Brazil.

With goals from Antonio Candreva and Mario Balotelli sandwiching Daniel Sturridge’s first half equalizer, Italy defeated England 2-1 at Arena da Amazônia, giving the Azzurri three points that leave them tied with Costa Rica at the top of Group D. England, handed an early setback, joins Uruguay at the bottom of the group ahead of what becomes a high-stakes match between the two sides on Wednesday.

Italy broke through in the 35th minute after a corner kick played short allowed Claudio Marchisio to put a 26-yard shot inside Joe Hart’s right post. Two minutes later, however, England responded, with a Wayne Rooney cross from the left of Italy’s penalty area finding Daniel Sturridge for a tap-in from at the far post.

Five minutes into the second half, Antonio Candreva’s lofted cross from allowed Mario Balotelli to head home the winner for close range, with a series of England chances over the final half hour going to naught. As the teams tired badly amid 70 percent humidity at Arena da Amazônia, Italy was able to preserve their crucial result.

[ MORE: Colombia downs Greece | Costa Rica shocks Uruguay | Ivory Coast takes on Japan ]

England continues Group D play on Wednesday in São Paulo, where an Uruguay team that were shocked by Costa Rica will be looking for its first points of the tournament. Italy will be the next big name for the upset-minded Ticos, who’ll face their early co-leaders Thursday in Recife.

Even play over the game’s first 12 minutes eventually saw Italy assume control, with England willing to let the Azzurri maintain possession once they broke past its initial line of defense. The approach allowed the four-time champions to keep 62 percent possession over the first 45 minutes, though thanks to the speed in England’s attack, the Three Lions proved just as dangerous going forward.

In the 22nd minute, that speed started to pay off, with Raheem Sterling beating Marco Verratti to the left of goal before failing to connect with Danny Welbeck at the far post. One minute later, Welbeck beat Gabriel Paletta to create a chance from the right, but an Andrea Barzagli lunge barely prevented a Sturridge opener. Identified as a weakness before the match, Italy’s lack of speed in defense starting conceding chances in the middle of the first half.

The Italian’s control in the other half proved just as dangerous. Slowly, the Azzurri began breaking down the left of England’s defense, with Wayne Rooney doing little to prevent Italy right back Matteo Darmian from joining Candreva to outnumber Leighton Baines. In the 33rd minute, that dynamic produced a chance for Balotelli at the near post, foreshadowing the Italians’ eventual opener.

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source: AP
Italy’s Claudio Marchisio celebrates after scoring the opening goal during Saturday’s match between England and Italy. (AP Photo/Matt Dunham)

Building down the right again the 35th minute, Italy earned their first corner kick of the match, eventually playing their restart short. Quickly, Verratti rolled a ball just outside the penalty area for Marchisio, whose perfect strike gave Hart no chance to prevent the opener.

Two minutes later, England had their response, with Rooney making amends for his defensive failings by creating the team’s equalizing goal. Racing past Darmian and onto a Sterling through ball, Rooney lofted a perfect cross far post for Sturridge, who met the ball in stride to one-time England even, 1-1.

Though Candreva would find the left upright just before halftime, the sides would go into intermission tied at one, with the open play that characterized the half’s final 25 minutes making the team’s 0-0 Euro 2012 quarterfinal a distant memory. If predictions of a first game draw were going to come good, it would be a drastically different draw than most imagined.

That notion was confirmed five minutes into the second half when Italy retook the lead. Again going down the right despite England’s tactical shift (swapping Rooney with Welbeck), Italy was able to create a two-on-one against a passive Baines, one that allowed Candreva to float a cross to the far post. There, Balotelli hammered a header inside the upright before Hart could recover, giving Italy a 2-1 lead.

Moments later, England looked poised for an immediate response. Turning on a ball at the edge of his team’s attacking third, Rooney raced away from Daniele De Rossi before bouncing a 22-yard shot outside of Sirigu’s right post. Eight minutes later, found alone in the middle of the penalty area, Rooney dragged a right-footed shot wide from 11 yards out, a miss that left commentators asking when the 28-year-old will score his first World Cup goal. Two minutes later, Ross Barkley tied to curl a 14-yard shot inside Sirigu’s left post only to see the Paris Saint-Germain goalkeeper punch the shot well clear of his penalty area. While speed was still a problem for the Italians, their lead remained in tact.

By the 70th minute, Italy’s control of the ball was gone. The tendency to build through the middle before exploiting England’s left? Gone. As the teams starting looking to their benches, the more pragmatic part of Italy’s nature has emerged. England would need to break them down.

In the 76th minute, Baines came close, forcing a dive from Sirigu on a 28-yard direct kick, but it would prove England’s last good chance. As both teams began to wilt in the Amazonian night, Italy was able to bleed out the result. Though Andrea Pirlo nearly doubled his team’s lead with a late free kick off the crossbar, the 2006 champions where left with their 2-1 result.

Whether that final flattered either side is open to debate, but between Italy’s ball movement and England’s speed, there was little at separated the two sides in Manaus. Unfortunately for England, that failed to produce a point as they opened their 2014 World Cup.

Lineups

England: Hart; Johnson, Cahill, Jagielka, Baines; Gerrard, Henderson (Wilshere 73′); Welbeck (Barkley 61′), Sterling, Rooney; Sturridge (Lallana 80′)

Goals: Sturridge 37′

Italy: Sirigu; Darmian, Paletta, Barzagli, Chiellini; De Rossi, Pirlo, Veratti (Motta 57′), Candreva (Parolo 79′), Marchisio; Balotelli (Immobile 73′)

Goals: Marchisio 35′, Balotelli 50′

Sydney FC return to winning ways in A-League

MELBOURNE, AUSTRALIA - FEBRUARY 24:  Goalkeeper Danny Vukovic of Sydney FC makes a save as Bruno Fornaroli of City competes for the ball during the round 21 A-League match between Melbourne City and Sydney FC at AAMI Park on February 24, 2017 in Melbourne, Australia.  (Photo by Scott Barbour/Getty Images)
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SYDNEY (AP) Bobo scored twice as Sydney FC rebounded from its first loss in the A-League to beat Melbourne City 3-1 and continue atop the table.

[ MORE: Schmeichel speaks about Ranieri sacking, state of Leicester ]

Sydney’s ambitious attempt to become the first team to end the regular season unbeaten came unstuck last week when it was beaten by Western Sydney Wanderers in a fractious local derby, repercussions of which continued through the week. Wanderers were fined $20,000 by Football Federation Australia after its fans unfurled an obscene banner targeting Sydney coach Graham Arnold.

[ MORE: Chelsea, Everton extend unbeaten run in Saturday’s PL play ]

Sydney raised itself above that controversy on Friday with a comprehensive win over Melbourne City which briefly took it 11 points clear in first place.

Melbourne Victory restored the gap to eight points when it beat defending champion Adelaide United 2-1, and Perth leapfrogged Melbourne City into third place when it dumped the Wanderers 2-0.

Bobo opened Sydney’s scoring with a penalty, but City canceled that out only a minute later.

Sydney went in front again after the break, and Bobo sealed the win, set up by a superb through ball by Milos Ninkovic which highlighted their developing combination.

Midfielder Brandon O’Neil said Sydney was determined to leave behind the contention of their derby loss.

“When it all came out, the FFA and Western Sydney had to deal with it and it did,” O’Neil said. “It brought us together and we spoke about a few things, and nothing changed for us. We want to be premier (champions).”

Melbourne Victory’s win over Adelaide kept it in touch with Sydney with seven regular season rounds remaining.

Wellington kept its faint playoff hopes alive, staying in seventh place with a 2-1 win over Brisbane.

Whitecaps acquire U.S. defender Brek Shea in deal with Orlando City

Toronto FC v Orlando City SC
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With almost a week to go until the Major League Soccer season kicks off, the Vancouver Whitecaps and Orlando City may have pulled off one of the biggest trades of offseason.

[ MORE: MLS negotiating to bring Chicharito to U.S. in 2018 ]

The clubs announced on Saturday that the Whitecaps have acquired U.S. Men’s National Team midfielder/defender Brek Shea in exchange for forward Giles Barnes, who is headed to Orlando City.

“We are excited to welcome Brek to our club and city,” said Whitecaps FC manager Carl Robinson. “Brek is a tall, physical, skilled player and will bring a different dimension to our attack. Brek will join the group in coming days and we anticipate he will be available for selection as early as this Thursday’s Champions League match against New York.”

Shea, 26, began his career in MLS with FC Dallas before heading to England for a brief stint with Stoke City. The U.S. defender made his way back to MLS ahead of Orlando City’s inaugural season in 2015 and started 39 matches in that span.

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Meanwhile, Barnes has scored 33 goals since joining MLS in 2012. The 28-year-old forward played with the Houston Dynamo before spending last season with the Whitecaps.

Report: MLS negotiating to bring Chicharito to U.S. in 2018

Javier "Chicharito" Hernandez, Bayer Leverkusen & Mexico
AP Photo/Martin Meissner)
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Major League Soccer has attracted some of the world’s biggest stars over recent years and now one of the Mexican national team’s top talents could be heading stateside very soon.

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According to ESPN FC, MLS is currently in negotiations with Bundesliga side Bayer Leverkusen in an attempt to lure Mexican striker Javier “Chicharito” Hernandez to the U.S. in the summer of 2018.

Expansion side Los Angeles FC has been heavily linked with Hernandez, with the club making its entrance into MLS in 2018. Additionally, the Los Angeles Galaxy have also been said to have strong ties with Chicharito.

Hernandez, 28, is currently under contract until next summer, and MLS is reportedly seeking a move in 2018 to avoid paying a transfer fee for the El Tri forward.

ESPN FC is also reporting that Chicharito could make around $9 million annually if he does in fact join MLS.

In 2015, Orlando City and the Chicago Fire were both linked with acquiring Hernandez but the Leverkusen forward was insistent upon the fact that he play Champions League football.

PL Sunday: Spurs look to regain second against Stoke

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Although there’s only one match on Sunday’s Premier League docket, the fixture bears great weight for both clubs.

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Tottenham vs. Stoke City — 8:30 a.m. ET, on NBCSN and NBCSports.com

Spurs have the chance to move back into second place at White Hart Lane as Mauricio Pochettino‘s side are firmly in a battle to finish runners’ up to Chelsea this season. Tottenham currently sit 13 points out of the top spot, however, five clubs are within four points of another in the battle for second. Danny Rose and Erik Lamela remain sidelined due to injuries but Spurs will remain the favorites in the fixture after having won their previous two league meetings.

Stoke enters Sunday having gone unbeaten in five of its last six PL matches and the Potters can enter the top 10 with a victory. Mark Hughes‘ side could be given a big lift with the potential return of Xherdan Shaqiri while Saido Berahino could be in line to earn his first start since joining Stoke. Both players could present massive upside for the Potters, who have struggled to find goals as of late. In their last four matches, Stoke have managed just three finishes, one of which came from an own goal.