Game on: Italy missing Buffon, Sterling starts for England

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One of the most anticipated games of the World Cup’s opening weekend, Italy’s meeting with England today in Manaus, Brazil, took a turn early today when Azzurri captain Gianluigi Buffon was ruled out with an ankle injury sustained in training. Instead of the 36-year-old’s 140 international appearances and experience at four previous World Cups, Cesare Prandelli will turn to Salvatore Sirigu, whose ninth international appearance will be by far his most important.

England is not without its own injury concerns, with Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain out while Danny Welbeck nurses a thigh problem, but none of those ailments can detract from today’s bigger story. These are two of the most storied nations in the soccer world, and although this is only their first game of Brazil 2014, there is an urgency to these first 90 minutes. Grouped with defending South American champions Uruguay, both England and Italy will be thrown into two must-win scenarios if they can’t get a result in Manaus.

Here’s how the teams will line up for today’s 6:00 p.m. Eastern kickoff:

[ MORE, Previews: England | Italy | Group D]
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Starting lineups:

England: Hart; Johnson, Cahill, Jagielka, Baines; Gerrard, Henderson; Welbeck, Sterling, Rooney; Sturridge;

Italy: Sirigu; Darmian, Paletta, Barzagli, Chiellini; De Rossi, Pirlo, Veratti, Candreva, Marchisio; Balotelli

Talking points:

1. England’s Andrea Pirlo obsession – It’s not that the Three Lions are wrong to be concerned about Italy’s midfield magician, but it’s strange to see a player who’s not named Messi, Ronaldo, or Ibrahimovic become such a single-minded focus of an opponent. Given how Pirlo performed against England at Euro 2012 (as well as the talent around him), you can’t blame Roy Hodgson for dwelling on the now-legendary distributor.

2. How do you help Sporadically Super Mario? – Whether Prandelli starts somebody with Mario Balotelli up top will be a game-to-game concern, but the reality of Italy’s attacking options remains the same: The team only has one proven goal scorer in the squad, and for better or worse, it’s the mercurial Balotelli. 

3. Some good old English bravery – Hodgson is known for his conservative approach, but in the lead up to Saturday’s match, there was an increasing hope that the former Inter Milan and Liverpool boss will roll the dice with his quick attack against a veteran (read: slower) Italian team. Facing an Azzurri side that should control the ball while needing its fullbacks to augment the width of a narrow midfield, the Three Lions should have their changes to counter, but to what extent will Hodgson play for those moments? Moving Southampton’s Adam Lallana to the bench gives us hint number one.

4. That pitch in Manaus – Particularly in this country, with the U.S. starting its tournament on Monday at the same venue, the quality of the field in Manaus has been a major concern. According to reports, part of the field appear to be painted, portraying an unnatural color of green. If the field’s a mess, it will be even more difficult for these two teams to distinguish themselves.

Expectation: Italy is generally seen as the slightly better team, with its run at Euro 2012 and performance at the 2013 Confederations Cup confirming that perception. Matched up against England, however, the Three Lions’ potential width plus the speed of Daniel Sturridge have given prognosticators pause. There is no clear expectation for this one.

One blogger’s prediction: The last time these teams played a competitive match, 120 minutes passed without a goal. Today’s game my not end scoreless, but where a loss would be a huge blow to either side, we still see a draw.

Sweden players, coaches left fuming after last-minute loss

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SOCHI, Russia (AP) — A last-minute goal. A non-called penalty. A disrespectful celebration.

Sweden had a lot to be upset about when the final whistle blew on Saturday.

[ MORE: Low: Germany survived “a thriller full of emotion” ]

The Swedes were within seconds of holding defending champion Germany to a draw, and moving into good position to advance to the round of 16 at the World Cup, when Toni Kroos scored deep into stoppage time to give Germany a 2-1 come-from-behind victory.

“I’m sorry that we didn’t get at least one point,” Sweden coach Janne Andersson said. “But I’m not blaming anyone tactically or analyzing too much right now, there are so many emotions going around. This is probably the heaviest conclusion that I’ve experienced in my career.”

Kroos’ goal from a set piece came in the fifth and final minute of injury time. The draw would have kept Sweden ahead of Germany in Group F and needing only a draw against Mexico in the last match.

[ MORE: Germany snatches late win over Sweden to avoid elimination ]

“It was just bad luck,” Sweden forward John Guidetti said. “Now we need to try to find a way to win the last match. In a few days we play again and we have to win it. It’s simple.”

Germany, which is tied with Sweden on points and goal difference, will play against South Korea in the final round.

“We still have an excellent opportunity to qualify,” Andersson said. “Now we have to clean up, tidy up after this game. We’re going to do that.”

The Swedes were leading Germany at halftime thanks to Ola Toivonen’s goal in the 32nd minute at Fisht Stadium. They felt they could have been ahead even earlier if the referee had called a penalty when Marcus Berg appeared to be fouled inside the area with a clear chance to score. There was no formal video review called for.

“If we have the (VAR) system, it’s very unfortunate that he (the referee) can feel so secure in the moment that he doesn’t go and have a look at the situation,” Andersson said.

He and the Swedish players said they also couldn’t understand why Germany decided to celebrate near their bench.

[ MORE: Latest 2018 World Cup news ] 

“You shouldn’t celebrate in front of our bench the way they did, that’s disrespectful,” Guidetti said. “You can celebrate with your own fans. Don’t celebrate in front of our bench like that. That’s why they apologized, because they knew they did something wrong.”

Andersson said he was “very annoyed” by seeing the Germany team “running in our direction and rubbing it in our faces by making gestures.”

“We fought hard for 95 minutes,” he said. “And when the final whistle blows, you shake hands.”

WATCH: World Cup, Day 11 — England, Colombia back in action

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Day 11 of the 2018 World Cup is up next, on Sunday, with England back in action and in need of three points — and a resounding win — to keep pace with Belgium in Group G.

[ MORE: Latest 2018 World Cup news ] 

Following Belgium’s 5-2 thrashing of Tunisia — the same side that England beat in stoppage time earlier in the week — on Saturday, the Red Devils have positioned themselves perfectly to win the group with a draw against the Three Lions on Thursday. England need a five-goal victory at 6-1 or higher to the finish top of the group following a draw on the final day.

Then, it’s a pair of Group H fixtures, kicked off with Japan (1st) versus Senegal (2nd) — both of whom won their first game — followed by Poland (3rd) versus Colombia (4th).

Below is Sunday’s schedule in full.

Click here for live and on demand coverage of the World Cup online and via the NBC Sports App.


2018 World Cup schedule – Sunday, June 24

Group G
England vs. Panama: Nizhny Novgorod, 8 a.m. ET – LIVE COVERAGE

Group H
Japan vs. Senegal: Yekaterinburg, 11 a.m. ET – LIVE COVERAGE
Poland vs. Colombia: Kazan, 2 p.m. ET – LIVE COVERAGE

FIFA opens case against Xhaka, Shaqiri for celebrations

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FIFA’s disciplinary committee opened disciplinary proceedings against Swiss players Granit Xhaka and Xherdan Shaqiri for politically charged goal celebrations during their 2-1 World Cup win over Serbia in Kaliningrad.

[ MORE: The meaning behind Xhaka, Shaqiri’s eagle celebration ]

FIFA also said Saturday it has opened disciplinary proceedings against the Serbian Football Association for crowd disturbance and the display of political and offensive messages by Serbian fans. FIFA also is reviewing statements that Serbia coach Mladen Krstajic made after the match.

Xhaka and Shaqiri celebrated their goals by making a nationalist symbol of their ethnic Albanian heritage. Both of their families come from Kosovo, the former Serbian province that declared independence in 2008. Serbia doesn’t recognize Kosovo’s independence and relations between the two countries remain tense.

[ MORE: Latest 2018 World Cup news ] 

The Polish Football Association was fined $10,100 and given a warning by FIFA’s disciplinary committee for a banner that the governing body deemed political and offensive. The banner was displayed during Senegal’s 2-1 win over Poland on Tuesday in Moscow.

The committee also opened disciplinary proceedings against the federations of Argentina and Croatia for crowd disturbances during Croatia’s 3-0 win Thursday at Nizhny Novgorod.

Low: Germany survived “a thriller full of emotion”

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At 1-0 down, they were headed for elimination in the group stage (with a game still to play); once level at 1-1, they faced yet a steep hill to climb on the final day of the group stage; after Toni Kroos scored his stunning 94th-minute winner, Joachim Low could finally exhale and imagine himself managing the German national team for another day.

[ MORE: Latest 2018 World Cup news ] 

Saturday’s 2-1 victory over Sweden at the 2018 World Cup was, for most intents and purposes, a worrying performance for the defending world champions. Fortunately for Low and Co., the one place in which their comeback dramatic victory was a raging success is the only one that matters: the Group F table, where Die Mannschaft currently (somehow) sit second and control their own destiny — quotes from the BBC:

“This was a thriller, full of emotion, right up until the final whistle. Brandt hit the goal post just three minutes before the end too. We took out a defensive player and brought on an attacking player because we knew had to bring on everything we had to turn it round.

“We had a couple of great chances — Mario Gomez’s header being one of them. The last couple of minutes were full of drama but those matches exist in football. We’ve had these situations in other tournaments as well. For the viewers that’s part of the attractiveness of football.”

“Something I did appreciate today was that we didn’t lose our nerve, we didn’t panic after going a goal down. We kept a level head and said we needed to make quick passes and tire the Swedes out to open up spaces.

“We didn’t score a couple of good chances but we never lost hope we could win the match and I think the goal scored in stoppage time had a bit of luck involved but it did show the belief we had in ourselves.”

There’s still plenty of work to do for one of the most popular pre-tournament favorites — there’s a little matter of needing to beat, or at the very least, match Sweden’s result against Mexico — but that can wait until tomorrow, because Saturday unexpectedly became all about survival.