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′

VIDEO: Goalkeeper sends Memphis Depay flying with skillful touch

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Former Manchester United attacker Memphis Depay has one of the brightest spots for Lyon this season that sees them battling with Monaco and Marseille for 2nd place behind a dominant PSG. He has scored 15 goals and assisted 11 others this Ligue 1 campaign, adding to his tally just four minutes into Friday’s 5-2 win over Dijon, the sixth win in a row for the club that pulled them within a point of Monaco.

However, there was a moment to forget for Depay in the victory as well.

With the score still at 1-1 in the 19th minute, Depay was sent high up the pitch to press Dijon goalkeeper Baptiste Reynet, owner of the leakiest net of the Ligue 1 season. Nevertheless, sometimes the underdog prevails, and that’s what happened as Depay flung himself at the ball to put Reynet under pressure.

One silky touch by the netminder was all it took for Depay to end up on his backside.

The 24-year-old Dutch winger has had a fantastic season and one that could potentially propel him back to the biggest stage and a bigger paycheck, but for now, we can all poke fun at his misery in the moment.

Dortmund admits interest in signing Batshuayi permanently

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Michy Batshuayi might be out for the season with a serious ankle injury, but he may have already done enough to earn a permanent move to Borussia Dortmund.

The Chelsea striker moved on loan to the Bundesliga side in January and made an immediate impact, scoring two goals on his debut, and ultimately wound up with seven goals in 10 Bundesliga games before his ankle injury brought his season to a close. Now, the Dortmund front office is speaking very highly of the Belgian goalscorer, not so subtly hinting that they will take an aggressive approach this summer.

The interest to sign him is there,” said Dortmund CEO Hans-Joachim Watzke. “But first we have to wait and see who will be Chelsea’s coach next season. Then we’ll start looking.”

Chelsea has Antonio Conte currently at the helm, but there are strong rumors that the Italian will depart at the end of the season as the Blues sit comfortably outside the Champions League places. Chelsea owner Roman Abramovich is known for his quick trigger, and despite Conte winning the Premier League just last season, this year’s disappointment will likely not be tolerated.

That yet-to-be-determined future has a significant impact on Batshuayi’s future, as Watzke mentions. The new Chelsea boss could take a liking to Batshuayi, which could complicate his permanent move. In addition, it’s possible that current players on the Blues roster could depart, like Alvaro Morata, Olivier Giroud, or Willian, making Batshuayi’s place at Chelsea more tenable.

There’s plenty to be sorted out in the coming months, but with Batshuayi’s 10-game performance at Westfalenstadion at the forefront of Watzke’s mind, it’s clear there will be potential here as the summer draws near.

Sessegnon scores 15th as Fulham equals Man City unbeaten mark

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Fulham equalled the longest unbeaten run in the English top four tiers this season as it defeated sixth-placed Millwall 3-0 on the road to increase its streak to 22 games without a loss and moving the club into position for automatic promotion.

The Whites have not lost since December 16th when they fell 1-0 to relegation-threatened Sunderland. The unbeaten streak matches Manchester City’s run of 22 games to start the Premier League campaign before a 4-3 loss to Liverpool in mid-January broke the spell.

Highlighting the match was the game’s opening goal from 17-year-old Ryan Sessegnon, the young defender’s 15th goal of the Championship season. Just a week ago, Sessegnon was named a finalist for PFA Player of the Year alongside Harry Kane, Leroy Sane, and Raheem Sterling. Also scoring in the win was Newcastle loanee Aleksandar Mitrovic who has bagged 11 goals in 15 matches since moving to Craven Cottage on Deadline Day of the winter transfer window, sparking talk of a possible permanent move should the Whites find themselves promoted at the end of the season. Fulham has not trailed a single second since he stepped on the field for his club debut.

Manager Slavisa Jokanovic has the team firing on all cylinders, outscoring opponents 49-14 during the unbeaten streak and racking up 56 out of a possible 66 points, with just five draws blemishing an otherwise perfect record. The club has scored first in 15 straight matches, and has not trailed since drawing level in the closing minutes of a 2-2 draw with Hull City on December 30th. The only teams in the top four leagues to score more goals than Fulham since Jokanovic took over are Liverpool and Manchester City.

USMNT defender Tim Ream has been arguably the club’s most valuable player during the streak, locking down a defense that has picked up 11 clean sheets during the unbeaten run. Ream has played in all but two league matches this season, completing the full 90 minutes in all 41 of his appearances thus far. He has been voted Man of the Match five times this season by the fans on the team’s official website, most recently in a 1-0 victory over Reading on April 10th. He also grabbed the award in a 2-0 win over Championship title winners Wolves on February 24th, a game that saw the Whites out-possess and out-shoot the league champions. Ream had this stunning goal-line clearance in the victory over Millwall on Friday, saving Fulham’s bacon with goalkeeper Marcus Bettinelli on the ground after an acrobatic save.

Fulham still has work to do in the Premier League promotion picture, despite the spectacular form. They sit in 2nd position as it stands, leading Cardiff City by two points, but Cardiff has yet to play this weekend, giving them a massive two games in hand. Fulham could ultimately be done in by a slow start to the season that saw them win just twice in the first nine matches of the season as the squad adjusted to a host of new additions. In addition, Fulham suffered a disappointing draw last time out against Brentford as the Bees scored in the 94th minute to deny Fulham all three points, a massive blow to their automatic promotion hopes. Still, Fulham would be considered favorites in any potential playoff run, with Aston Villa, Middlesbrough, and Millwall currently the other teams in playoff positions.

There’s plenty on the line for the club over the next few weeks. Should Fulham fail to gain promotion, it could be a massive blow to the club as Sessegnon could be lured away from Craven Cottage, with Jokanovic and playmaker Tom Cairney also likely to garner speculation of a departure over the summer if the club was to remain in the Championship.

Espanyol fires former Watford manager Quique Sanchez Flores

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BARCELONA, Spain (AP) — Espanyol says it has fired manager Quique Sanchez Flores with the club slumping in the Spanish league and in danger of facing a relegation fight to end the season.

Espanyol announced the decision on Friday, adding sports director Jordi Lardin has also been let go.

Sanchez Flores, a former manager of Atletico Madrid, Valencia and Watford, among other clubs, coached the Barcelona-based club for the past two seasons.

Reserve team coach David Gallego will take over for the remaining five rounds of the season, starting with a visit to Girona on Sunday.

Espanyol hasn’t scored a goal in five matches, and has only two wins in the last 15 rounds. It is in 16th place, nine points from the drop.