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Italy forced into key changes ahead of 2nd leg vs. Sweden

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MILAN (AP) The sight of Napoli winger Lorenzo Insigne being brought on for the final 15 minutes of Italy’s World Cup playoff in Sweden was a welcome one for away fans.

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With Italy trailing 1-0 in the first leg, the Azzurri desperately needed the creative skills of the 26-year-old Insigne.

But fans and even the Italy players themselves were bemused when Insigne took up Marco Verratti’s central midfield role.

Insigne had to explain to his teammates, saying “in the middle” before shrugging his shoulders with resignation and responding “yes” to their incredulity.

The substitution failed to change the score and Italy was left at serious risk of failing to qualify for the World Cup for the first time in six decades.

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“The coach knows what kind of player I am, and when I’m called upon I always try to give my best,” Insigne said. “I’m sorry I wasn’t able to make a difference tonight. If the coach asks me to play for one minute or 90, I’ll always try to give 100 per cent.

“The coach asked if I felt ready to replace Verratti and I said yes because we have to give 100 per cent in any role the coach asks us to play, and even more with the national jersey … I’m disappointed, but now we must get our heads down and work because we have the return match Monday and we have to try to win it at all costs.”

It is this creative midfield role that will be Italy coach Gian Piero Ventura’s biggest headache as he ponders what changes to ring for the second leg in Milan on Monday.

Verratti is suspended after picking up a second booking in Sweden. Jorginho has been in fantastic form for Napoli this season and seems the most natural replacement but he has never played for Italy before. However, the only other option is Roberto Gagliardini and the Inter Milan midfielder lacks the offensive capabilities needed this time round.

Italy was too predictable and slow to punish Sweden’s well-organized defense on Friday. Although Ventura shelved his unpopular 4-2-4 formation, the 3-5-2 system didn’t work either.

The players appear perfectly suited to a 4-3-3 system used by Napoli and Roma, who are playing the best football in Italy at the moment.

[ MORE: WCQ — Ireland, Denmark all square ahead of decisive second leg ]

Ventura will have better options up front for the return match. Simone Zaza should be back from the knee injury which kept him out of Friday’s match, while Andrea Belotti — who has only just returned from injury — will also be in better shape.

Matteo Darmian was Italy’s best player on Friday and should start again at San Siro.

The veteran “BBC” defense of Leonardo Bonucci, Andrea Barzagli and Giorgio Chiellini also proved solid. Italy goalkeeper Gianluigi Buffon was rarely tested and the only goal was deflected in off Daniele De Rossi.

Buffon has called for Italy to play with more ferocity in Milan.

“We’ll need a physical Italy side,” the Italy captain said. “But a physical match will not be enough: we have to keep our balance, conceding a goal would be disastrous.

“We can talk about our mistakes but it won’t help anything. We need to hold our heads high and stand tall to come back. We need to be fierce, us and the whole San Siro.”

Ligue 1: Alves secures late win for PSG; Depay does same for Lyon

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PARIS (AP) — Memphis Depay scored in the last minute of a frantic match to give Lyon a 3-2 win at third-placed Marseille that keeps alive its chances of Champions League soccer next season.

In the fight for a Champions League playoff spot, fourth-placed Lyon closed the gap on Marseille to two points with eight games left. Monaco is seven points ahead of Marseille in second spot.

The match at Stade Velodrome ended with players pushing and shoving after the final whistle. Lyon defender Marcelo then mockingly brandished a Lyon jersey in front of Marseille’s players as they were walking off. It sparked a further melee which took more than a minute before security officials brought it under control. Several players from both sides tried to get at each other, rather than walking away when they had the chance.

It was the latest volatile incident in the French league.

On Thursday, several police officers were injured after clashes with Lyon fans before a Europa League game against CSKA Moscow.

This followed on from a mass pitch invasion by angry fans of struggling Lille on March 10, when about 200 fans charged onto the pitch to confront players after a home draw with Montpellier.

The acrimony continued Sunday.

As the players walked back through the tunnel to the dressing rooms, Marseille center back Adil Rami had to be held back as he launched himself at Lyon goalkeeper Anthony Lopes. Marseille goalkeeper Steve Mandanda also had to be pushed away moments later as he sought to back Rami up.

“When I see that it just makes me sad,” said Lyon defender Jeremy Morel, who formerly played for Marseille. “This isn’t even about football. I think we’ve really had enough of this, we don’t need it.”

Marseille winger Florian Thauvin saw it differently.

“Some Lyon players took the liberty of mocking us. It’s not professional on their part,” Thauvin said. “They lacked respect. (Marcelo) is a professional player, he should be leading by example. They shouldn’t behave like that.”

Greece striker Kostas Mitroglou’s looping header in the 84th minute appeared to have earned Marseille a point, after Lyon midfielder Houssem Aouar put Lyon ahead 2-1 shortly after the break with a sweetly struck shot from winger Betrand Traore’s pass.

Mitroglou then almost went clean through from the halfway line in the 89th, only to be incorrectly called back for offside. It proved a key moment as Depay scored the winner one minute later.

Lopes took the free kick after the offside decision, striker Mariano Diaz headed the ball on just outside the edge of the penalty area and Depay read it well to nod it over the advancing Mandanda from just inside the area.

Rami’s own-goal late in the first half canceled out center back partner Jorge Rolando’s opener in the 31st.

“We defended really badly,” Mandanda said. “We just didn’t match them in the challenges.”

Dani Alves took Paris Saint-Germain a step closer to the French title, scoring his first league goal of the season with a late header as PSG won 2-1 at Nice.

The 34-year-old Brazil defender met midfielder Adrien Rabiot’s astute curling pass with a powerful header into the bottom right corner in the 82nd minute.

PSG is 17 points clear of defending champion Monaco and almost certain to win its fifth title in six seasons. PSG has seven games left and Monaco has eight.

Nice took the lead in the 17th minute. Mario Balotelli expertly chested down a high ball to the feet of strike partner Alassane Plea near the halfway line, and Plea’s pass sent Allan Saint-Maximin scampering though to finish coolly.

Four minutes later, Angel Di Maria took advantage of slack defending to equalize. It was his ninth goal in 25 league games and he needs one more to match his career-best tally.

The match started at 1 p.m. local time (1200 GMT) to capture a prime-time television audience in Asia. This follows on from the opening of a French league football office in Beijing last year.

“The Spanish and the English did this before. We train in the mornings, so it shouldn’t be a problem,” said Nice coach Lucien Favre, referring to the early kickoff. “I hope it was a good advert (for Ligue 1). It was a good game.”

Nice is in eighth place, three points above Saint-Etienne in ninth.

Bundesliga: Bayern finally lose; Batshuayi scores a stunner (video)

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BERLIN (AP) Runaway Bundesliga leader Bayern Munich lost 2-1 at Leipzig on Sunday in a rare stumble ahead of the international break.

Sandro Wagner headed the visitors into an early lead but Naby Keita equalized before the break and Timo Werner claimed the winner 10 minutes after it.

“We didn’t play like we have in the last weeks,” Bayern coach Jupp Heynckes said. “Leipzig is the deserved winner. You get such games.”

It was Bayern’s third defeat in 27 German league games and Leipzig’s first-ever win over the Bavarian powerhouse after three losses in the Bundesliga and a defeat on penalties in the German Cup last October.

Bayern leads Schalke by 17 points with seven games remaining. It can wrap up its record-extending sixth consecutive title with a win at home over third-place Borussia Dortmund on March 31 – if Schalke drops points to Freiburg on the same day.

Schalke and Dortmund had already postponed the celebrations by winning their 27th-round games, but Wagner got Bayern fans cheering when he scored in the 12th minute.

Wagner, selected to give Robert Lewandowski a rest, was one of several Bayern players waiting to head James Rodriguez’ brilliant cross inside the far post.

But Bayern failed to cope with Leipzig’s pressing game and Keita deservedly equalized on a rebound after Werner’s effort was blocked.

Keita then sent Werner through to score his first goal since Jan. 20 and end Leipzig’s four-game winless run.

Heynckes, who had called up Bayern under-19 midfielder Meritan Shabani to the senior squad for the first time, sent Lewandowski on for the last 20 minutes but the Poland striker was unable to add to his league-leading tally.

Cologne, which made the worst-ever league start by any team, rekindled its slim hopes of survival by beating Bayer Leverkusen 2-0 in the Rhine derby to leave the bottom of the table for the first time since the third round.

“The corpse is still alive,” said Leonardo Bittencourt, who was impressive for Cologne.

Yuya Osako fired the home side into an early lead after good work from Bittencourt, and Simon Zoller sealed the win with 20 minutes remaining when he lifted the ball over the outrushing goalkeeper.

Leverkusen’s hopes of claiming an equalizer were damaged after a half-hour when Lucas Alario swung his elbow back into Dominic Maroh in an off-the-ball incident, leaving the Cologne defender on the ground clutching his neck. Referee Harm Osmers sent the Argentine off after consulting video replays.

Cologne moved two points above Hamburger SV and five points behind Mainz in the relegation playoff place with seven games remaining. Relegation rivals Hamburg, Mainz, Wolfsburg and Freiburg all lost in the 27th round.

Leverkusen dropped to fifth, one point behind Eintracht Frankfurt in the last Champions League qualification place.

Michy Batshuayi‘s brilliant first-half strike was enough for Borussia Dortmund to beat visiting Hannover 1-0 and consolidate third place in the Bundesliga on Sunday.

The home side enjoyed the better start as it looked to make a statement following its disappointing Europa League exit to Salzburg on Thursday.

Batshuayi scored in the 24th minute, running toward Andre Schuerrle’s corner and flicking it on the volley with his heel to send the ball inside the far post.

Dortmund stayed a point behind Schalke with seven games remaining, while Hannover dropped to 13th after its fourth consecutive loss.

Serie A: Napoli make good on Juve’s slip-up, now just 2 back

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A roundup of all of Sunday’s action in Italy’s top flight…

[ MORE: Barcelona still unbeaten after 29 league games; Ronaldo scores 4 ]

Napoli 1-0 Genoa

Juventus slipped up in a big, big way on Saturday, stumbling to a scoreless draw away to tiny SPAL 2013, and opening the door ever so slightly for Napoli. With a win on Sunday, secured by Raul Albiol’s late winner, Napoli now trail Juve by just two points with the two sides level on games played (29) once again.

The victory snapped a two-game winless skid for Napoli, a run which saw them cough up the top spot which they had held for nearly the entire season, and set up perhaps a colossal title decider on April 22, when first hosts second in their quest to claim a seventh straight Serie A title.

Crotone 0-2 Roma

One spot and 14 points further down the table, you’ll find an interesting battle for third, with Roma picking up their third straight win, 2-0 over 18th-place Crotone on Sunday.

Stephan El Shaarawy (38th minute) and Radja Nainggolan (74th) bagged the goals for Roma, who lead Inter Milan by four points with nine games to go (Inter have a game in hand).

Sampdoria 0-5 Inter Milan

No one was more impressive this weekend than Inter, who put four past Sampdoria in the first half, including a hat trick from Mauro Icardi, who would then go on to add his fourth — Inter’s fifth — in the second half. That’s 22 league goals for the Argentine forward, who now trails Lazio’s Ciro Immobile by two in the Golden Boot race.

Elsewhere in Serie A

Lazio 1-1 Bologna
AC Milan 3-2 Chievo
Hellas Verona 0-5 Atalanta
Torino 1-2 Fiorentina
Benevento 1-2 Cagliari

La Liga: Barcelona unbeaten after 29 games; Ronaldo scores 4

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A roundup of all of Sunday’s action in Spain’s top flight…

[ MORE: Man United vs. Spurs in FA Cup semis; Chelsea-Southampton]

Barcelona 2-0 Athletic Bilbao

Updated numbers for Barcelona’s current unbeaten run in La Liga: 29 games this season; 36 dating back to last season. The quest for the unbeaten league season is now just nine games from reality.

Perhaps even more impressive than the W-D-L record is their defensive record: 13 goals conceded in 29 games (they’ve also scored 74 and have a +61 goal differential).

Sunday’s 2-0 victory over Bilbao saw Lionel Messi, Luis Suarez and Co., go 11 points clear in the title race and all but secure their third title in four seasons, thanks to results elsewhere (see below).

Paco Alcacer opened the scoring after just eight minutes, and Messi made it 2-0 right on the half-hour mark (his league-leading 25th goal of the season; 34 in all competitions).

Real Madrid 6-3 Girona

Cristiano Ronaldo bagged four goals of his own to bring his season total to 22 (32 in all competitions), now second ahead of Suarez and three behind Messi for the Golden Boot, and in the process push Real Madrid (60 points) to within four points of Atletico Madrid in the race for second.

Ronaldo scored goals no. 1, 2, 4 and 6 for Madrid, with tallies from Lucas Vazquez and Gareth Bale sprinkled in between.

Villarreal 2-1 Atletico Madrid

Atletico Madrid were the last side within touching distance of Barca — “just” eight points back coming into the weekend — but that’s no longer the case following a late collapse and a 2-1 defeat away to fourth-place Valencia.

Antoine Griezmann put the visitors ahead from the penalty spot in the 20th minute, but Enes Unal bagged an equalizer in the 82nd and the game-winner in the 91st. Atleti finished the game with 10 men after Vitolo was sent off in the 92nd minute.

Real host Atleti in the Madrid derby on April 8, a game which will go a long way towards crowning this season’s runners-up.

Elsewhere in La Liga

Valencia 3-1 Alaves (Saturday)
Leganes 2-1 Sevilla
Real Betis 3-0 Espanyol (Saturday)
Celta Vigo 0-0 Malaga
Real Sociedad 1-2 Getafe (Saturday)
Levante 2-1 Eibar (Friday)
Deportivo La Coruña 1-1 Las Palmas (Saturday)