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Italy’s plan for Sweden in WCup playoff: ‘Play like Italy’

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ROME (AP) Italy has a straightforward plan to avoid missing its first World Cup in six decades – just play its usual game in the playoff against Sweden.

After all, Italy has gone unbeaten against Sweden in their last five meetings and won four of the encounters, including 1-0 last year at the European Championship.

[ MORE: Spurs duo Kane, Winks out for England’s friendlies ]

Perhaps making matters less complicated, standout striker Zlatan Ibrahimovic retired from Sweden duty after Euro 2016.

“They’re four-fifths the same squad. They play the same. They’re physical and well organized. It’s part of their DNA,” Italy coach Gian Piero Ventura said on Monday.

“But the real problem isn’t what Sweden does. It’s what we do. Italy has to play like Italy. We’ve always been there when there’s something important to play for.”

A four-time champion, Italy has participated in every World Cup since failing to qualify for the 1958 tournament, which coincidentally was held in Sweden.

The last major competitions Italy missed were the 1984 and 1992 European Championships.

“Nobody has even considered not going,” Ventura said at the Azzurri’s Coverciano training complex in Florence.

But Italy has showed poor form recently, ever since a 3-0 loss to Spain in September that virtually sealed its fate as the second-place finisher in its qualifying group.

After the Spain match, Italy narrowly edged Israel 1-0 at home, drew with Macedonia 1-1 at home, and won in Albania 1-0.

With his job on the line, though, Ventura would gladly accept two more narrow wins.

“In Spain or England when you win playing poorly they fire the coach. In Italy, results count more than anything,” said the 69-year-old journeyman coach, who never managed a major club before being called in as a replacement when Antonio Conte left the national team for Chelsea after Euro 2016.

“It’s a big moment for me but also for the players,” Ventura added. “Going or not going to a World Cup means something. For some it’s the beginning of a cycle, for others it’s a matter of finishing in a certain manner.”

Captain Gianluigi Buffon made his first appearance for Italy in a World Cup playoff against Russia on a snowy pitch in 1997. Having announced he plans to retire from the national team, the playoff could mark his final international matches.

In one of the four European playoffs, Italy travels to Stockholm for the opening leg on Friday. The return match will be at Milan’s San Siro Stadium three days later.

In qualifying, Ventura relied on Andrea Belotti and Ciro Immobile – two players he previously coached at Torino – for goals. But there are questions over their fitness.

Belotti, who scored 26 goals with Torino in Serie A last season, appears to be at only 60-70 percent capacity as he works his way back from a right knee injury. Immobile leads the Italian league with 14 goals in 11 matches this season but recently strained a leg muscle.

On the positive side, Simone Zaza was recalled after scoring eight goals in his last seven league games for Valencia; wingers Antonio Candreva, Lorenzo Insigne and Stephan El Shaarawy are also in top form; and key midfielders Marco Verratti and Daniele De Rossi return after missing the final two qualifiers through injury.

[ MORE: Slaven Bilic fired at West Ham ]

Mario Balotelli, meanwhile, hasn’t played for Italy since the Azzurri’s first-round elimination from the 2014 World Cup. He remains out of the squad.

While Sweden didn’t qualify for the last two World Cups, it impressed in qualifying with a win over France and finished ahead of the Netherlands in its group.

“We are winners just by being here,” Sweden coach Janne Andersson said.

Sweden went unbeaten at home in qualifying at Friends Arena and striker Marcus Berg scored eight times in nine matches

“If we can play at that level, we can beat any team in the world – including Italy,” Andersson added.

Ventura called up an expanded 27-man squad to allow room for injuries and suspensions in the 72 hours between the two games. Four players – Giorgio Chiellini, Marco Parolo, Verratti and Immobile – are in danger of missing the second leg if they pick up another yellow card.

More than 65,000 tickets have been sold for the game at the San Siro.

“We can’t disappoint them,” Ventura said of the fans. “And we can’t disappoint Italy.”

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

Premier League preview: Man United vs. Newcastle United

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  • Red Devils unbeaten in 31 of last 32 home fixtures vs. Newcastle
  • Newcastle winless in its last six PL matches
  • Lukaku hasn’t scored in United’s last seven games

Manchester United hosts Newcastle United on Saturday from Old Trafford (Watch live, 12:30 p.m. ET, on NBC and NBCSports.com) as the Red Devils could potentially welcome back several of it biggest stars for the match.

WATCH LIVE, ONLINE, HERE

Zlatan Ibrahimovic, Paul Pogba and Marcos Rojo could return for Jose Mourinho’s side this weekend, as Man United looks to bounce back from its 1-0 defeat to Chelsea on Nov. 5.

The ex-Sweden international Ibrahimovic hasn’t appeared in a match since April 2017, after being United’s top goalscorer a season ago.

The Red Devils will have to deal with the absence of Phil Jones at the back, though, as the England international misses out on the match with a thigh injury.

Newcastle will be without Christian Atsu and Jamaal Lascelles, which certainly hurts the squad’s attack, while Mikel Merino and Paul Dummett remain sidelined with respective injuries.

What they’re saying

Jose Mourinho, on Paul Pogba’s status:  “I can say now because he’s back – I don’t like to speak while he’s injured – you can clearly see there is a Manchester United this season before Paul’s injury and after Paul’s injury. There are qualities in our football, qualities that influence our approach in matches, with Pogba and without Pogba. Simple as that.”

Rafa Benitez, on growing pains of being a young side“We are a newly-promoted club that has to settle down in the Premier League. We have a young squad, so it’s a learning process for everyone and losing some games is part of the process. Hopefully we can stop that this weekend, but we know it has to be like this. We have to think that the target is to stay in the Premier League, then after try to go as high as we can in the table.”

Prediction

Newcastle has had its share of struggles this season, and running into a Man United side that is gaining full fitness is a dangerous task. The Red Devils are a tough squad to beat at home, so Rafa Benitez and Co. have their hands full. Man United 2-0 Newcastle

Luiz back in Chelsea squad after being dropped by Conte

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David Luiz‘s pair of stints at Chelsea have been nothing short of a roller-coaster ride of emotions — joyous highs and painful lows.

[ MORE: Pogba, Zlatan back form injuries; available this weekend ]

After returning to the club for a second time in the summer of 2016, Luiz instantly slotted into Antonio Conte‘s three-man backline and was a pivotal part of the Blues’ title-winning team last season.

Much like the second half of his first four seasons at Chelsea, Luiz’s second season (the second time around) has started so hotly. After playing eight of the first 10 games during Chelsea’s ongoing title defense, Luiz was unexpectedly dropped from the squad for the victory over Manchester United.

Now, two weeks later, Conte has announced that Luiz has rejoined the squad and is available for selection when his side visits West Brom on Saturday (Watch live, 10 a.m. ET, on NBC Sports Gold) — quotes from the Guardian:

“David Luiz is in the squad, yes. [His exclusion] was a technical decision. When it’s a technical decision every player has to react well and accept my decision. It’s normal, this.

“I like to speak about the team and the next game that we have to pay attention to. This is the most important thing, not speaking about a single player. I repeat: I don’t like to speak about a single player.”

Pogba, Zlatan, Rojo return from injuries for Man Utd-Newcastle

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The only saving grace when it comes to injuries is that, eventually (usually), players recover from them and return to the team.

[ MORE: 2018 World Cup Power Rankings — who comes out on top? ]

It’s been a long seven months for the soccer world to be without Zlatan Ibrahimovic (torn ACL on April 20), just as it’s been a painfully long 10 weeks for Manchester United fans following Paul Pogba‘s hamstring injury on Sept. 12. Man United have dropped eight points during the latter’s absence and now coincidentally sit eight points behind Manchester City in the Premier League title race.

A bit of good news on this Friday: United manager Jose Mourinho announced today that the dynamic duo, along with defender Marcos Rojo (knee ligament damage on April 20) have returned to full fitness and will be available for selection during Saturday’s home clash with Newcastle United (Watch live, 12:30 p.m. ET, on NBC and NBCSports.com) — quotes from ManUtd.com:

“The players that stayed here and [were] recovering from injuries, even the ones that are recovering from big injuries, they are ready to play — Pogba, Ibrahimovic and Marcos Rojo.”

“[Ibrahimovic] made a full recovery. Now you cannot expect him to be ready to play 90 minutes or to be ready to play consecutive matches like he did all his career.

“Now he needs time to be back to his level, his fitness, his confidence, his sharpness, his everything. But, from the clinical point of view, to be good and ready is fantastic.”

2018 World Cup Power Rankings — 7 months B.W.C.

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209 days — that’s how long the world is still being made to wait for the opening game of the 2018 World Cup. It’s close, in that all 32 berths have been secured, but still so far, in that the draw is still two weeks away.

[ FOLLOW: All of PST’s 2018 World Cup coverage | USMNT | Premier League ]

Perhaps then, and only then, will it begin to feel really real.

According to our esteemed panelists — Joe Prince-Wright, Nicholas Mendola, Kyle Bonn, Matt Reed, Dan Karell and yours truly — four clear-cut favorites for the semifinals have separated themselves from the rest of the pack, followed by another six or eight sides with one half of their squad firing on all cylinders but some serious kinks to work out elsewhere.

[ MORE: Round 1 of the WC power rankings | Round 2 ]

Finally, the latest edition of PST’s 2018 World Cup Power Rankings, now featuring all 32 teams qualified for Russia…

Team Points Best Worst
1 (1) Germany 189 1 2
2 (2) Brazil 188 1 3
3 (4) Spain 177 3 5
4 (3) France 176 3 5
5 (8) Argentina 158 4 10
6 (5) Belgium 156 4 10
7 (7) Portugal 153 6 10
8 (11) England 150 5 12
9 (6) Uruguay 141 6 14
10 (9) Colombia 140 7 12
11 (10) Mexico 129 8 14
12 (12) Poland 125 10 14
13 (20) Croatia 118 7 20
14 (17) Switzerland 115 12 16
15 (NR) Sweden 92 16 19
16 (NR) Denmark 86 13 23
17 (NR) Serbia 83 9 28
18 (NR) Peru 80 15 25
19 (15) Iceland 79 15 24
20 (16) Japan 71 16 27
21 (NR) Egypt 66 18 27
22 (NR) South Korea 64 13 32
23 (NR) Senegal 63 17 26
24 (18) Nigeria 58 15 27
25 (19) Costa Rica 57 14 29
26 (NR) Morocco 48 18 29
27 (NR) Australia 45 22 30
28 (NR) Russia 36 20 32
29 (NR) Iran 34 22 31
30 (NR) Tunisia 30 23 31
31 (NR) Panama 19 28 32
32 (NR) Saudi Arabia 9 31 32