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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

La Liga & Serie A: Video replay used in Juve win, Atleti draws

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A roundup of Saturday’s action from around Spain and Italy’s top flights…

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Girona 2-2 Atletico Madrid

Everything that could go wrong did on Saturday for Atletico Madrid, but it was Girona’s gain as the promotion side began its La Liga journey with a draw. A first-half brace from Cristhian Stuani gave the hosts a 2-0 lead inside the opening 25 minutes, and from there, matters were made worse for Atleti when Antoine Griezmann was sent off in the 67th minute after picking up a second yellow card. Angel Correa pulled a goal back with 12 minutes remaining for Diego Simeone’s side, while Jose Gimenez tied the match in the 85th minute.

Celta Vigo 2-3 Real Sociedad

Future LA FC forward Carlos Vela played a key role for Real Sociedad in their comeback win over Celta Vigo. The Mexican international drew a penalty kick with two minutes to play in regulation, before Willian Jose buried the ensuing spot kick to give Sociedad the victory. Celta Vigo led at home twice on Saturday, but the visitors showed their resiliency, scoring twice in the final 10 minutes of play.

Sevilla 1-1 Espanyol

Clement Lenglet and Léo Baptistão scored on the afternoon in the draw, and despite Sevilla’s overwhelming possession the hosts couldn’t muster up enough to secure three points in the opener. The home side was reduced to 10 men with under 10 minutes remaining as well when second-half substitute Ever Banega was sent off.

Sunday’s La Liga schedule

Athletic Bilbao vs. Getafe — 12:15 p.m. ET
Barcelona vs. Real Betis — 2:15 p.m. ET
Deportivo La Coruna vs. Real Madrid — 4:15 p.m. ET


Juventus 3-0 Cagliari

Everything was status quo for Juventus as they kicked off another season in Serie A as the reigning Italian champions. The Bianconeri controlled the flow of play throughout the match, limiting Cagliari to just two chances on target. Mario Mandzukic and Paulo Dybala struck in the first half to put Juve up 2-0 at the break, while Gonzalo Higuain tacked on a third finish in the second stanza.

Cagliari’s best chance came when Duje Cop was taken down in the box, prompting referee Fabio Maresca to utilize VAR for the first time in a Serie A match. After mulling the decision for a moment, Maresca pointed to the penalty spot, but Diego Farias’ attempt was saved by Gianluigi Buffon.

Hellas Verona 1-3 Napoli

Napoli boasted one of the top attacks in Europe last season, and the club didn’t waste any time in picking up where they left off. An own goal kicked things off for Napoli in the first half, before Arkadiusz Milik and Faouzi Ghoulam put the finishing touches on the match. Meanwhile, a late red card from Elseid Hysaj allowed Hellas to score their lone goal of the afternoon through Giampaolo Pazzini’s penalty finish.

Sunday’s Serie A schedule

Atalanta vs. Roma — 12 p.m. ET
Bologna vs. Torino — 2:45 p.m. ET
Crotone vs. AC Milan — 2:45 p.m. ET
Inter Milan vs. Fiorentina — 2:45 p.m. ET
Lazio vs. SPAL — 2:45 p.m. ET
Sampdoria vs. Benevento — 2:45 p.m. ET
Sassuolo vs. Genoa — 2:45 p.m. ET
Udinese vs. Chievo Verona — 2:45 p.m. ET

Europa wrap: Milan runs riot; Everton wins; USMNT’s Horvath posts clean sheet

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The matches were plentiful as clubs from around Europe angled for a spot in the UEFA Europa League group stage in the first legs of playoff round ties.

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Panathinaikos 2-3 Athletic Bilbao

Ageless Aritz Aduriz just keeps scoring, and La Liga’s visitors erased a 2-0 deficit with a pair of goals from the 36-year-old — he’s not really ageless, guys and girls — sandwiched around a De Marcos tally.

Everton 2-0 Hajduk SplitRECAP

Stylish assists from Leighton Baines and Wayne Rooney set-up Michael Keane and Idrissa Gana Gueye for rare goals, and Everton could’ve had many more in the first leg. Hajduk, however, showed some danger late and a raucous, disruptive, and even violent visiting crowd showed the second leg will be anything but simple for Ronald Koeman‘s men.

Club Brugge 0-0 AEK Athens

USMNT backstop Ethan Horvath kept a clean sheet with a two-save performance for Brugge, and the Greek visitors won’t take any away goals home for the second leg.

AC Milan 6-0 Shkendija

In another realm, Milan is still scoring goals. Andre Silva netted twice in the first 28 minutes, Fabio Borini and Luca Antonelli also scored. And how about Riccardo Montolivo?

 

UEFA Europa League playoff first legs
Utrecht 1-0 Zenit — Weds.
BATE Borisov 1-1 Oleksandriya
Apollon Limassol 3-2 Midtjylland
Krasnodar 3-2 Red Star Belgrade
Dinamo Zagreb 1-1 Skenderbeu
FH 1-2 Braga
PAOK 3-1 Ostersund
Vardar Skopje 2-0 Fenerbahce
Viktoria Plzen 3-1 AEK Lamaca
Altach 0-1 Maccabi Tel-Aviv
Ludogorets Razgrad 2-0 Suduva
Domzale 1-1 Marseille
Osijek 1-2 Austria Wien
Viitorul 1-3 Red Bull Salzburg — 2:45 p.m.
Ajax 0-1 Rosenborg
Legia Warsaw 1-1 Sheriff
Partizan 0-0  Videoton
Maritimo 0-0 Dynamo Kyiv

Real Madrid signs 6-year deal with French defender Hernandez

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MADRID (AP) Real Madrid has signed a six-year deal with French defender Theo Hernandez after securing his transfer from rival Atletico Madrid.

The 19-year-old Hernandez impressed last season while playing on loan from Atletico to fellow Spanish league club Alaves. The left back had been linked to a move to Real Madrid for several months.

Hernandez played for Atletico’s youth teams before his stint with Alaves. Atletico said in a statement that Hernandez had “rejected on several occasions Atletico Madrid’s offers to renew his contract” that was good through 2021.

Neither club disclosed the financial details of the transfer.

With Hernandez playing a leading role, Alaves surpassed expectations by reaching the Copa del Rey final last season and finishing the Spanish league in ninth as a newly promoted team.

Hernandez will likely be a second-choice player for coach Zinedine Zidane behind Brazil left back Marcelo.

While Hernandez arrived at the defending European and Spanish champions, left back Fabio Coentrao was sent on loan to Sporting Lisbon. Coentrao joined Madrid in 2011, but injuries and the strong play of Marcelo greatly limited his playing opportunities in recent campaigns.

Barcelona has yet to make any moves this summer, but it did announce on Wednesday that star forward Lionel Messi will sign a three-year contract extension keeping him at the club through 2021.

New league, very different challenges for Fabio Capello in China

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As he won league titles as head coach of Real Madrid, Milan and Juventus, Fabio Capello never had to contemplate relegation. In his first foray to China, it has suddenly become a very real threat.

Capello, winner of the UEFA Champions League in 1994 and who also led the national teams of England and Russia to the 2010 and 2014 World Cups, was appointed as head coach of Jiangsu Suning in June.

In three Chinese Super League games under one of the world’s most famous coaches, Jiangsu has collected just one point. More worrying still is that in those games, the Nanjing-based club failed to score.

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The latest setback was a 1-0 home loss to Shanghai SIPG, which was missing star players Oscar and Hulk through suspension. That loss left Jiangsu bottom of the 16-team league, three points adrift of safety.

“Maybe this is the most testing situation that Capello has ever faced,”Gary White, who led Shanghai Shenxin clear of relegation from China’s League One in 2016, told The Associated Press.

“He does not have a team full of world-class players to rely on. He must bring the big foreign stars and the Chinese players together and get them to play for each other. It is not about quality, it is about motivation.”

The player stocks are still high at the club which finished runner-up in the 2016 season. Bolstered by more than $80 million spent on Brazilian internationals Alex Teixeira and Ramires, Jiangsu pushed Luiz Felipe Scolari’s Guangzhou Evergrande all the way for the title.

This season the stars remained at the club and firepower was added in the shape of Colombian international striker Roger Martinez.

There were high hopes at the start of the season but the expected title challenge hasn’t materialized and Jiangsu started to slip down the standings, winning just once in the first third of the season. South Korean coach Choi Yong-soo resigned on June 1.

“With the experience Capello has, you would think he can turn it around,” White said. “This club should not be bottom of the league with the players they have. He has to get them to play for each other, the team, the fans and the city.”

The expected upturn has yet to happen, though the 71 year-old Italian coach is trying to stay positive.

“We are improving,” Capello said after the latest loss. “We are playing better all the time but we are lacking confidence especially in front of goal. Against Shanghai we played well and did not deserve to lose …I can see the quality that there is in the team.”

Capello has been in China for less than a month but much of the Chinese media has warned of the need for a result soon.

However, Capello can take heart from Felix Magath. The former Bayern Munich boss arrived in June 2016 to take over a struggling Shandong Luneng.

“The Chinese Super League is a tough league and when you are in the relegation zone, confidence falls and when you are a big team with famous players, the other teams like to beat you,” said Magath, who steered Shandong to safety with a margin of just two points.

This season Shandong is much-improved and currently sits in fifth.

For Capello, anywhere outside the bottom two when the season ends in October will do.