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Italy’s once-vaunted ‘BBC’ defense is showing its age

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ROME (AP) With a combined age of 99, Italy’s once vaunted “BBC” defensive trio is showing its years.

The Azzurri will still rely on Andrea Barzagli, Leonardo Bonucci and Giorgio Chiellini in a World Cup playoff against Sweden next month but the signs in Serie A lately have not been encouraging.

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Bonucci’s red card with AC Milan over the weekend was the latest in a series of poor performances after his high-profile transfer from Juventus made him the highest-paid player in Italy.

Chiellini and Barzagli were beaten for goals twice by Ciro Immobile in Juventus’ 2-1 home loss to Lazio less than 10 days ago, and Chiellini was again off form in the Bianconeri’s 6-2 victory over Udinese on Sunday.

Chiellini was fooled by Stipe Perica for Udinese’s first goal and then left Danilo unmarked to head in another as he appealed for an offside call that never came.

Bonucci is 30, Chiellini is 33 and Barzagli is 36.

While Italy coach Gian Piero Ventura has shown interest in developing new talent, he has shown no indication that he plans to cast aside the “BBC” when it counts.

After all, Italy has historically been slow to incorporate younger players, especially defenders.

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That means the likes of Daniele Rugani (who plays for Juventus), Alessio Romagnoli (Milan) or Mattia Caldara (Atalanta) – who are all in their 20s – may have to wait for their chances with the Azzurri.

But Ventura would do well to remember how Marcello Lippi kept Fabio Cannavaro and other veterans in the lineup at the 2010 World Cup only to acknowledge after the first-round exit that he made a mistake and was overly influenced by the older players’ performance en route to the title four years earlier.

From Franco Baresi to Giuseppe Bergomi to Paolo Maldini, Alessandro Nesta, Cannavaro and the “BBC,” strong center backs have been a source of uninterrupted pride for the Azzurri for decades.

Gianluigi Buffon in goal has also provided a security blanket for nearly 20 years but he, too, is approaching the end of his career and will likely retire after this season – or after his record sixth World Cup if Italy qualifies.

Italy’s hopes of avoiding the playoffs were dashed with a debilitating 3-0 loss in Spain last month that offered a first hint of defensive problems. The defeat ended Italy’s 11-year unbeaten run in qualifiers for World Cups and European Championships.

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The Azzurri attributed the loss to Spain on Sept. 2 to a lack of physical condition so early in the season.

Bonucci, it was figured, just needed some time to adapt to his new surroundings at Milan.

In July, Bonucci completed a surprise transfer from Juventus, where he clashed with coach Massimiliano Allegri last season and was memorably left in the tribune for a Champions League match at Porto.

The transfer fee topped 40 million euros (nearly $50 million) and Bonucci signed a five-year contract worth up to 10 million euros (nearly $12 million) per season. He was also made captain before he ever wore a Milan shirt.

When Milan started to falter a month ago, physical trainer Emanuele Marra was fired – reportedly in large part because Bonucci demanded better fitness preparation.

But Bonucci was out run by Mauro Icardi on Inter Milan’s first goal when the striker scored a hat trick in a 3-2 derby win eight days ago. He was also to blame for the second, failing to mark Icardi in the area.

Things got even worse for Bonucci when he was sent off in the first half of Milan’s 0-0 draw at home with Genoa on Sunday for elbowing a defender in the head as he jostled for position on a free kick.

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Bonucci will likely be given a multiple-match ban, which would exclude him from facing Juventus next Sunday and could affect his form for the Nov. 10 and 13 playoffs.

“Leo is a champion,” Buffon said. “He’ll become decisive again. But it makes me feel calmer knowing that we won’t have to face him on Saturday.”

More AP Serie A coverage: https://apnews.com/tag/SerieA

Andrew Dampf on Twitter: http://www.twitter.com/asdampf

Wigan boss defends fans after pitch-storming

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Wigan Athletic boss Paul Cook is defending his supporters following a memorable upset of Manchester City in the FA Cup.

[ MORE: Europa League draw ]

Latics fans stormed the pitch at the DW Stadium, a celebratory but dangerous scene which included “disturbances” between supporters of both clubs and a confronration between fans and Sergio Aguero.

But it takes just a look at the above photo to see both sides of the issues, as the photographer at right catches fans and players celebrating together… while Aguero rages behind him.

From Sky Sports:

“You’ve got to remember the pure emotions of the night for Wigan fans,” he said.

“They didn’t really turn up to see us win – that’s the truth of it. I’ve got a picture of my son in the directors’ box – he’s only 12 – with his head in his hands looking at the floor because he couldn’t watch.

“We certainly don’t want to see fans engaging with players. The players’ protection is absolutely paramount. But also the supporters enjoying that moment is a good thing for me.”

There is, also, this photo to show the other side of the scenario. Ultimately in our era, this type should sadly be prevented to defy the potential for the latter. That’s sad, but it’s a litigious world.

Dan Burn of Wigan Athletic celebrates. (Photo by Michael Regan/Getty Images)

Premier League Preview: Watford vs. Everton

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  • Watford has two wins in last 14 PL matches
  • Toffees won 3-2 at Goodison on Nov. 5
  • Watford leads all-time 19W-3D-3L

Two top half hopefuls meet at Vicarage Road in a reprise of an early season thriller when Watford hosts Everton on Saturday (Watch live at 12:30 p.m. ET on NBC and online via NBCSports.com).

Everton is in a battle for seventh with Burnley and Leicester City, and could finish the weekend there with a win and help.

Watford has to chance to finish in the top half. It’d be there already had it not coughed up a 2-0 lead to then-caretaker manager David Unsworth‘s Everton in a 3-2 loss on Nov. 5.

What they’re saying

Watford’s Jose Holebas on the match“We have to do something in this game. When we played there, we were 2-0 up and gave the game away in that way – it is unacceptable for me. I was a little bit emotional because I know that this season we have lost some points [from winning positions].”

Everton’s Sam Allardyce on his style critics“The type of football we’ve produced isn’t rubbish, we’ve produced proper football in terms of what we’ve tried to achieve. The past reputation is not the reality if you ask the players, so you look at the football we’ve played since I’ve been here.”

Prediction

Police say officer collapsed by himself during fan violence

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MADRID (AP) The riot police officer who died of cardiac arrest during crowd trouble before a Europa League match in Spain collapsed on his own and not in a direct confrontation with fans, authorities said Friday.

Officials in the Basque region of Spain said doctors dismissed the possibility the cardiac arrest was caused by any type of trauma sustained by the officer in fighting that took place before the match between Athletic Bilbao and Russian club Spartak Moscow on Thursday.

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There had been conflicting reports about what caused the officer’s death, with some saying he might have been involved in a struggle with fans or was hit by one of the many objects being thrown during the altercation.

Five people remained detained – three Russian nationals and two Spaniards – following the violent clashes that took place less than four months before the World Cup is held in Russia.

Authorities identified the victim as 51-year-old Inocencio Alonso Garcia and said he “suddenly felt ill in the course of the serious incidents” that took place outside San Mames Stadium in the northern city of Bilbao.

They said the officer was quickly transported from the scene but went into cardiac arrest before arriving at the nearby Basurto hospital. Doctors said they tried to revive him for more than an hour.

Video footage published by local media appeared to show the moment the officer collapsed while standing near the fighting along with other policemen.

Other images of the clashes showed fans hitting each other, and a group of policemen striking a man on the ground after he fell trying to run away.

The officer who died was among the large police force summoned to try to keep order as several hundred Russian fans – many of them considered by local authorities as radical ultras – arrived in the city for the round-of-32 match in Europe’s second-tier club competition.

The trouble erupted as police were escorting Spartak fans into the stadium and a stray group allegedly started igniting fireworks and throwing flares and objects toward Athletic supporters and police officers.

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Police said “violent fans from both clubs” participated in the fighting which spread onto the streets near the stadium located in a central area of Bilbao. Many fans were seen trying to run away from the trouble as fireworks went off all around.

Authorities said they had identified several people before the fighting carrying items that included knives, iron bars, brass knuckles and even bags of stones.

There had been reports of other minor clashes involving Russian fans in Bilbao ahead of Thursday’s match, which Spartak won 2-1. Athletic advanced despite the loss, winning the tie 4-3 on aggregate.

UEFA condemned the violent clashes and said it was in contact with local authorities to obtain more information on the incidents, while Spanish league president Javier Tebas called for action by FIFA and UEFA to halt fan violence.

Bilbao will host matches in the 2020 European Championship. Six years ago, a fan died in the city in clashes after a match between Athletic and German club Schalke.

Earlier Thursday, German police arrested a Russian suspected of seriously injuring a British soccer fan during the European Championship in France two years ago.

More AP Spanish soccer coverage: https://apnews.com/tag/LaLiga

Tales Azzoni on Twitter: http://twitter.com/tazzoni

Premier League Preview: Leicester City vs. Stoke City

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  • Foxes unbeaten in five vs. Stoke
  • Drew 2-2 at the Potteries on Nov. 4
  • Leicester leads all-time 34W-34D-31L

Leicester City can rejoin the Top Seven with a win and help on Friday when it hosts relegation-threatened Stoke City (Watch live at 12:30 p.m. ET on CNBC and online via NBCSports.com).

The Foxes sit eighth in the Premier League table, a point back of Burnley (The Clarets host Southampton on Saturday)

Stoke, meanwhile, is two points back of safety. The half-full glass says the Potters have only lost once since Paul Lambert took over as boss, but the half-empty one sees draws against Watford and Brighton to go a loss at Bournemouth.

What they’re saying

Leicester boss Claude Puel on Stoke’s fortunes: “Shaqiri can make the difference and at the moment they play well with a good fighting spirit. I think they play good football on the floor. When they recover the ball they try to get in behind and make good pressing on the opponent. Shaqiri has more freedom and plays between the lines and they are a good team at this moment.”

Stoke’s Xherdan Shaqiri on Paul Lambert’s style“He has a German mentality with his teams… I’m really glad he came here. With German teams they always sit together – there are no phones on the table. It’s brought us more together – when you eat together you have to speak more to other team-mates who you don’t normally speak to. It’s a good thing.”

Prediction

Phone ban or no, it will take improved communication to deal with Jamie Vardy, Riyad Mahrez, and Adrien Silva. Leicester gets another win, 3-0.