The Italian team celebrate scoring the opening 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/Francois Xavier Marit, pool)

Prandelli’s progress, England’s threat, forgetting basics: Talking points from Italy’s win over England


One of the most anticipated matches of the World Cup’s opening week lived up to expectations, with both Italy and England flashing second round form during the Azzurri’s 2-1 win in Manaus, Brazil. Yet despite goals from Claudio Marchisio and Mario Balotelli offsetting Daniel Sturridge’s first half equalizer, each side showed enough weaknesses to give future opponents hope. For Italy, that meant reminding the world of its inherent limitations, while England showed a surprising inability to deal with the obvious.

Here are five talking points from today’s marquee matchup:

1. This is so Prandelli’s Italy – Dominating possession, leveraging the skill of its midfielders, and relying on movement around its core. This is so Cesare Prandelli’s Italy, a team that represents the perfect balance of its coaches’ philosophy, players’ skills, and culture’s value.

In that way, there’s this brilliant, admirable balance to the Italians, especially considering their dependence on a few singular talents. Built around Andrea Pirlo, relying on Mario Balotelli, and hoping to protect its savvy but slow defense, all of the Azzurri’s defying qualities were on display in today’s opener.

Compared to the team that flopped four years ago, it’s a refreshing if imperfect change. Even against England, the defense’s shortcomings and the lack of attacking options was a problem. Just as we saw at Euro 2012 and the Confederations Cup, these issues could be Italy’s downfall.

Still, let’s not overlook the progress Prandelli’s made. Let’s not take his journey for granted. In the wake 2010’s group stage exit, the former Fiorentina boss had to completely remake this team. Now, as he approaches the end of his journey, we can appreciate the results.

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

2. Pirlo didn’t decide the match – Here’s a brief synopsis of the English media’s expectations for the match: Pirlo, Pirlo, and more Pirlo. At least, that’s what I remember. The coverage was so focused on the regista, you’d be forgiven for asking “how’s Italy going to win if they play 1-on-11?”

And no mistaking it, Pirlo was good. Organizing, probing, distributing as Italy pushed England in their defensive third, all the sublime greatness we associate with the 35-year-old icon was on display.

Thanks in part of England’s approach, he completed 105 passes at a 95 percent clip. England’s high man: Steven Gerrard, completing 67 balls. It was an amazingly prolific and efficient day – one that will leave mouths agape as people scan the final numbers.

Pirlo, however, didn’t decide the match. He may have dictated it, but it was Claudio Marchisio, Mario Balotelli, and Antonio Candreva that influenced the game’s biggest moments. At the final whistle, Pirlo’s greatness was clear, but his teammates’ contributions were just as important.

[ MORE: Soccerly covers the World Cup ]

source: AP
England’s Raheem Sterling, left, and Daniel Sturridge, right, react after Italy’s Mario Balotelli scored today’s winning goal. (AP Photo/Matt Dunham)

3. England’s attackers deserved the hype – Once the game opened up, it was clear Italy wasn’t going to be able to keep up. Raheem Sterling, when he dropped to pick up the ball, saw room as he turned toward the defense. Wayne Rooney took advantage of the same space in the second half. Danny Welbeck was able to beat defenders one-on-one, while Italy had problems with Daniel Sturridge’s runs. If England finished their chances, they were going to get a result. Unfortunately, their best chance of the second half fell to Rooney, who remains scoreless in World Cup.

Mind you, England did this is against Italy. Yeah, their defenders are slow, but they’re good, and we know how organized their midfield can be. The Three Lions may have only scored one goal, but they created enough chances to expect more going forward.

What does that say about Wednesday’s game, where England will face and even more stoic Uruguay central defense? Or in the group finale, where Costa Rica won’t offer as much resistance in the middle. It says …

4. There’s no margin for error, but reason to believe – … that England should still be favored to get out of its group. Perhaps Uruguay will recover from today’s loss, and maybe Costa Rica is for real, but based on what we saw today, the Three Lions should be considered favorites in each of their last two games. Even with this loss, Roy Hodgson should maintain his sights on the second round.

5. Hodgson’s team failed at the basics – Who would have bet the one big deficiency would be something so fundamental? Especially from a Roy Hodgson team? Nobody got out to meaningfully challenge Claudio Marchisio on the opener, and in the second half, the most basic of movements was able to get Antonio Candreva behind Leighton Baines before he cut back for his cross.

I don’t know if Roy needs to break out the ropes, but some back to basics drills might be in order. Or, given that more weak defending down their left led to the first goal, Hodgson may need to make some tough decisions about how to protect Leighton Baines, particularly given how little influence England had in the middle of the park.

Hodgson’s not really going to regret passing over Ashley Cole … is he?

Juninho hoping Willian breaks his Champions League free-kick record

xxxx during the Barclays Premier League match between Chelsea and Southampton at Stamford Bridge on October 3, 2015 in London, United Kingdom.
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Willian has scored six goals for Chelsea this season, with all six coming from free kicks.

Four of those have been scored in the Champions League, as the Brazilian has tied the record for the most free-kick goals in a single UCL campaign.

[ MORE: Premier League roundup ]

Willian is tied with his fellow Brazilian Juninho, known as one of the deadliest set-piece takers of all-time, who scored four times for Lyon during the 2005-06 campaign.

When asked about the possibility of his record being broken, Juninho was glad it would be by another Brazilian player, and said Willian will likely surpass him in the coming matches.

It’s good it’s a Brazilian, and from this new generation of good players we have.

It is very gratifying for me because when I scored these four goals, no one said anything.

I’m being remembered by what Willian has achieved, and I think he has everything to beat the record. The Champions League has barely reached half way and Chelsea still have a few more games to play.

Willian has converted 6 of 12 free kicks this season, scoring at an unheard-of 50-percent clip. All of his goals have come from almost the exact same spot on the pitch, about 20-25 yards out at the corner of the box to the keepers right.

[ WATCH: Jamie Vardy scores in record 11th straight Premier League match ]

Chelsea’s next Champions League match is on December 9 at Stamford Bridge against Porto. The Blues need a draw to advance into the knockout round.

West Brom’s Jonas Olsson backs Zlatan for Premier League move

SOLNA, SWEDEN - NOVEMBER 14: Sweden 10 Zlatan Ibrahimovic durring a European Qualifier Play-Off between Sweden and Denmark on November 14, 2015 in Solna, Sweden.  (Photo by Michael Campanella/Getty Images)
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With his contract at Paris Saint-Germain expiring in the summer, where Zlatan will go next is one of the biggest mysteries in football.

Having already played in the Netherlands, Spain, Italy and France, the Premier League would be a logical next step in Zlatan’s career.

[ MORE: Aguero injury update ]

However, at 34-years-old, Zlatan himself has said it is “too late” for him to play in England, adding more mystery to where he will end up.

Despite what Zlatan says, his teammate on the Sweden national team Jonas Olsson believes the PSG striker is more than capable of playing in the Premier League.

Olsson, who has made nearly 400 appearances for West Bromwich Albion over the past eight seasons, said Zlatan’s elite talent would be fit for England’s top flight.

He’s still at the top of his game. He is the strongest player I have faced. I really hope he comes.

Zlatan on his day is the most talented footballer in the game. He has played under Mourinho before and the only place where he’s not 100% appreciated is in the UK.

I think he can play for any team in this league – he is still that good.

Even at 34, Zlatan has proven he is still one of the best strikers in the world. He recently became Paris Saint-Germain’s all-time leading scorer, and has scored at least 30 goals in each of the past four seasons.

[ VIDEO: Jamie Vardy speaks after scoring in 11 straight Premier League matches ]

The Premier League certainly has the money to entice Zlatan, and it is the biggest league in the world that he hasn’t conquered yet. Expect his name to be linked with a move to every major club in Europe for the rest of the year, as we’ll just have to wait until June and see what he decides.

Three questions ahead of Sunday’s MLS Conference Finals

PORTLAND, OR - NOVEMBER 22: Goal keeper Adam Kwarasey #12 of Portland Timbers slides in on Michael Barrios #21 of FC Dallas during the second half of the match at Providence Park on November 22, 2015 in Portland, Oregon. (Photo by Steve Dykes/Getty Images)
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There are only two matches remaining before MLS Cup, with both conference’s top seeds in need of a big result.

FC Dallas lost to the Portland Timbers 3-1 in the first leg out West, while the New York Red Bulls fell 2-0 to Columbus Crew SC in the East.

[ FOLLOW: All of PST’s MLS coverage ]

Leg 2 of the Conference Finals will both be played on Sunday, as we will know the MLS Cup finalists by the end of the night.

WEST: FC Dallas vs. Portland Timbers — 5 p.m. ET
EAST: New York Red Bulls vs. Columbus Crew SC — 7:30 p.m. ET

With each home-side needing to overcome a two-goal deficit, here’s what to look out for in the Conference Finals.

Will FC Dallas capitalize on home-field advantage?

Despite being down 3-1 on aggregate, FC Dallas will be looking forward to Sunday’s second leg. Dallas finished the season 13-2-2 at Toyota Stadium, the best home record in MLS. After scoring a crucial away goal in Portland, a 2-0 win for Dallas will see the side advance to the final. Their 33 goals scored at home was the second-best mark in the Western Conference, as Oscar Pareja’s men will feel confident despite the aggregate.

[ VIDEO: USMNT’s Fabian Johnson scores twice for Monchengladbach ]

Is Norberto Paparatto ready to replace Liam Ridgewell?

Norberto Paparatto has played just six matches for Portland this season, but it looks like he’ll be starting on Sunday. Liam Ridgewell, who started all 32 matches at center-back, injured his calf in the first leg and manager Caleb Porter said Paparatto will “most likely” be starting, as Ridgewell was seen warming up separately from the rest of the team in training. With FC Dallas in need of goals, Paparatto will have his hands full on defense, especially with the likes of Fabian Castillo and Mauro Diaz bombing forward.

Can Luis Robles keep a clean sheet for RBNY?

The Red Bulls’ Luis Robles was named MLS Goalkeeper of the Year this season, and he’s going to need to play like that on Sunday. After losing 2-0 in the first leg without scoring an away goal, New York needs a 2-0 win themselves just to force extra-time. If Columbus scores at Red Bull Arena, New York needs to score four goals to advance. While it will have to be a collective team effort to keep the Crew off the scoresheet, Robles will have to make some big saves in goal to keep his side in it.

La Liga roundup: Barcelona win big in another dominant performance

<> at Camp Nou on November 28, 2015 in Barcelona, Spain.
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Catch up on all of Saturday’s La Liga action, as the trio of Messi-Suarez-Neymar continues to terrorize defenses.

Barcelona 4-0 Real Sociedad

In case you haven’t heard, Barcelona is scary good. Coming off of brilliant 4-0 and 6-1 wins over Real Madrid and Roma respectively, the Catalans trounced Real Sociedad at Camp Nou. It was the usual suspects once again, as Lionel Messi, Luis Suarez, and Neymar (x2) scored the goals in another masterful performance. The M-S-N trio has accounted for 30 of Barcelona’s 33 goals in La Liga this season.

Atletico Madrid 1-0 Espanyol

While the boys from Barcelona may be getting all the headlines, Antoine Griezmann has been having a great season for Atletico Madrid. The French international scored the game-winner in Atletico’s 1-0 win over Espanyol, his tenth in all competitions this season. The good news is that Atleti sit second on the table with a five-point lead over Real Madrid in third, while the bad news is that midfielder Tiago broke his leg in the match.

[ WATCH: Everton, Bournemouth trade late goals in stoppage-time thriller ]

Malaga 2-2 Granada

In a battle of teams fighting for La Liga survival, Granada came from behind to steal a draw at Malaga. The home-side was leading 2-0 until Granada tallied twice in the final ten minutes to take a huge point for the club. Malaga remains glued to the bottom of the table, while Granada is currently out of the drop zone on goal differential.

Elsewhere in La Liga

Levante 0-1 Real Betis
Las Palmas 0-2 Deportivo
Celta Vigo 2-1 Sporting Gijon
Getafe vs. Villarreal (Sunday, 6 a.m. ET)
Eibar vs. Real Madrid (Sunday, 10 a.m. ET)
Rayo vs. Athletic Bilbao (Sunday, 12:15 p.m. ET)
Sevilla vs. Valencia (Sunday, 2:30 p.m. ET)