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′

LIVE – UCL group stage finale: Leicester, Tottenham both in action

LONDON, ENGLAND - NOVEMBER 06:  Harry Kane of Tottenham Hotspur celebrates scoring his sides first goal with team mates during the Premier League match between Arsenal and Tottenham Hotspur at Emirates Stadium on November 6, 2016 in London, England.  (Photo by Clive Rose/Getty Images)
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The final matchday of the 2016-17 UEFA Champions League group stage takes place on Wednesday with two Premier League teams in action.

[ LIVE: Champions League scores

Leicester City is already through and has topped Group G with Claudio Ranieri‘s men securing a top spot for next Monday’s Round of 16 draw. The Foxes face FC Porto in Portugal with the hosts needing just a point to secure second place in the group and their spot in the last 16. Putting their Premier League worries aside, Leicester will aim to stay unbeaten throughout all six of their UCL group games.

Tottenham Hotspur wish they could say the same but Mauricio Pochettino‘s men have already crashed out of the Champions League with one game to go. They host CSKA Moscow at Wembley Stadium in Group E with Spurs needing just a draw to secure a place in the Europa League knockout stages. Bayer Leverkusen and AS Monaco has already qualified from Group E but Spurs’ Harry Kane insists they now want to go on and win the Europa League.

[ MORE: Permutations for each UCL group ]

Elsewhere Real Madrid and Borussia Dortmund clash to decide top spot in Group F, while Juventus, Lyon and Sevilla are all still in the mix in Group H with the final game to come.

Below is a full schedule for Wednesday’s Champions League games, with each game kicking off at 2:45 p.m. ET.

You can follow live commentary and stats of each game by clicking on the link above, while we will have reaction right here on ProSoccerTalk.


Wednesday’s UEFA Champions League schedule

Group E
Tottenham Hotspur vs. CSKA Moscow
Bayer Leverkusen vs. Monaco

Group F
Real Madrid vs. Borussia Dortmund
Legia Warsaw vs. Sporting Lisbon

Group G
FC Porto vs. Leicester City
Club Brugge vs. FC Copenhagen

Group H
Juventus vs. Dinamo Zagreb
Lyon vs. Sevilla

Power Rankings: Top five players in the Premier League, right now

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The Premier League Player Power Rankings are out and now it is time to focus on the top five.

[ MORE: PST’s top 20 players, Week 14 ]

With two players from Chelsea and two from Arsenal, plus another from Tottenham Hotspur in the top five, Week 14 delivered plenty of goals and attacking players dominate our rankings.

Click on the link above to see our full list of the top 20 players in the Premier League, while in the video above Jenna Corrado and I discuss my top five players based on the last seven days of action.

[ STREAM: Every PL game on NBC Sports ] 

Hit play on the video above to enjoy watching some silky skills and terrific goals as we guide you through the creme de la creme.

Why are Leicester struggling so much? Where can Man City improve?

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Last season Leicester City vs. Manchester City was a clash between two rivals fighting for the Premier League title.

This season? Not so much.

[ MORE: Ranking the PL superstars ]

Leicester host Man City on Saturday at the King Power Stadium (Watch live, 12:30 p.m. ET on NBC and online via NBCSports.com), with the reigning champs embroiled in a relegation battle with just three wins from their 14 PL games this season.

As for City, Pep Guardiola is finding the Premier League a little tougher to handle than Spain and Germany early on with City winning just three of their last eight games in the Premier League but they’re still sitting just four points off top spot. That said, City has lost to both Tottenham Hotspur and Chelsea already and their status as preseason title favorites is already being severely questioned.

For Leicester, their problems are worse than those at Man City.

There are multiple issues at play which could explain their stunning drop-off compared to last season. After 14 games this season the Foxes have 13 points. At the same point of their incredible title-winning campaign in 2015-16 they had 29 points and were joint-top of the table with Manchester City who actually have one more point this season than they had at this stage last season.

Back to Leicester and right now they are just two points off the relegation zone and have lost three of their last four games. Ranieri is very worried about relegation, as his recent comments in press conferences show.

“This moment is not the right moment for us. We wanted to get points here but of course it was a relegation battle, they won, well done to them,” Ranieri said after the defeat at Sunderland. “I said two, three weeks ago, always I look behind me. We are in the battle of relegation. For this reason we must stay calm, together and continue to work hard.”

At least Ranieri knows it, but how has it got to this point with Leicester breezing through their UCL group and into the knockout stages?

The loss of N'Golo Kante in midfield has been huge for Leicester with the French international midfielder already proving indispensable for Chelsea this season as he breaks play up, shields the back four and sets the tempo of the game for his team. Kante’s departure has left a huge hole in Leicester’s midfield but they’ve been equally hit just as hard with a lack of goals from Jamie Vardy who has scored just twice in the PL and Riyad Mahrez has suffered from a lack of creativity.

Mahrez set up 22 goalscoring chances for Vardy last season. This season the duo have combined just once. Maybe that is because Ranieri has been chopping and changing his team so much to cope with the demands of the UCL and PL, with Mahrez and Vardy often preferred for European action, but there’s no doubting that their level has dropped off and that’s happened across Leicester’s entire squad.

When you look at Leicester’s defensive displays, not much has changed but perhaps the rub of the green is going against them and they are falling behind to opponents extremely often which is making them chase the game and they’re getting out of their comfort zone. Simply put: Leicester isn’t doing what it is best at.

Ranieri knows it and said as much after their latest defeat at Sunderland which has put them further in trouble with plenty of tough games on the horizon.

“It is difficult to say what we miss. We miss everything,” Ranieri said.

In the latest PST Extra Jenna Corrado and I discuss the recent poor form of both Leicester and Man City and if fans of both teams should be worried heading into this big match on Saturday.

Click play on the video above to see us break it down.

Report: FIFA president backs 48-team World Cup, 16 groups of three teams

ZURICH, SWITZERLAND - OCTOBER 14: FIFA President Gianni Infantino poses for a photo after part II of the FIFA Council Meeting 2016 at the FIFA headquarters on October 14, 2016 in Zurich, Switzerland. (Photo by Philipp Schmidli/Getty Images)
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Gianni Infantino wants to freshen things up a bit.

The new president of FIFA has been steadfast in his desire to increase the number of teams participating at a World Cup to 48.

[ MORE: Ranking the PL superstars

After all it was a huge part of his presidential mandate which got plenty of the smaller nations of the soccer world on board to vote for him, and reports from AFP are now circulating that Infantino and key figured at FIFA have indeed backed a 48-team World Cup from 2026 onwards.

Members of the FIFA Council had previously received outlines of four proposed formats, including staying with a 32-team World Cup, but it is believed Infantino wants a 48-team World Cup and the decision could be made next month at a FIFA Council meeting.

It is also being widely reported that Infantino wants to try something new and have 16 groups with three teams in each. It is also believed the top two teams would go through from each group to a Round of 32 knockout stage and then to a Round of 16 and so on.

On the face of it, that doesn’t seem too bad an idea.

It would certainly eliminate some of the boring third group games we have endured at most World Cups recently as the two teams going through to the last 16 are usually sewn up by that point and the two other teams are left around with another game to play. However, it will be intriguing to see how the game schedule is set up in the three team group scenario.

The cynical folks out there suggest that Infantino is merely trying to ramp up more revenue from increasing the number of teams from 32 to 48 but when you look at it, the number of games would actually stay the same if there were 16 groups with three teams in each.

Think about it: more upset stories, more first-time qualifiers and more riding on each of the two group games for each team before heading straight to the knockout rounds.