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Italy facing “limitations” in bid to qualify for World Cup

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So often a country with a seemingly limitless supply of world-class talent, Italy’s national soccer team is facing “some limitations” as it tries to qualify for the World Cup.

The four-time world champions ended up second in their group, finishing behind Spain, and will have to win a two-leg playoff against another European team to qualify for next year’s tournament in Russia.

“At the moment we have some limitations,” Italy coach Gian Piero Ventura said after his team labored to a 1-0 win over Albania on Monday, “but there is the desire to try to do things.”

A year ago, Italy was playing in the quarterfinals at the European Championship. The Azzurri lost to Germany on penalties under then-coach Antonio Conte.

There was renewed excitement in the national team when Ventura took over, but that has been on a downward slide as the team’s performances have dipped. The Italians needed an injury-time goal to win in Macedonia, and they were booed off the field in Turin on Friday following a 1-1 draw in the return match.

The win over Albania, at least, was a positive ahead of the playoffs.

“It’s another small step forward and I’m confident,” Ventura said. “I was before when there were so-called dramatic moments and I am now, too.”

VENTURA TO BLAME?

Many in Italy believe the 69-year-old Ventura is the problem.

Italy has looked disjointed in almost every match under the coach and many questioned his tactical ability even before he fielded a 4-2-4 formation against Spain’s potent midfield last month. The Italians lost 3-0.

In Friday’s match with Macedonia, Ventura started with a mainly defensive lineup in a 3-4-3 formation against a team near the bottom of the group.

Ventura will be the coach when Italy tries to qualify for the World Cup in the playoffs, but he might not be there too long after that.

RIGHT MIX

There is still plenty to be positive about in the Italy team.

The core “BBC” defense of Andrea Barzagli, Leonardo Bonucci and Giorgio Chiellini is still going strong in front of veteran goalkeeper Gianluigi Buffon.

Waiting in the wings are Daniele Rugani, Alessio Romagnoli and Mattia Caldara. There is also goalkeeper Gianluigi Donnarumma, who is only 18 but has already made nearly 100 appearances for AC Milan.

Italy also has some exciting talent up front, including Andrea Belotti and in-form Lazio forward Ciro Immobile. Then there is Lorenzo Insigne and Antonio Candreva.

The 23-year-old Belotti was injured for the final two qualifiers and his absence was a big blow to Italy, which was also without Claudio Marchisio, Daniele De Rossi, Marco Verratti and Lorenzo Pellegrini.

ATTACK

Italy’s main strength has traditionally been its defense, but it has two potent forwards in Andrea Belotti and Ciro Immobile.

Belotti, who scored four goals in six qualifying matches, should return from injury at the end of October, in time for the playoffs. The Torino forward scored 26 goals in Serie A last season.

Immobile ended last season with 23 goals and already has nine in the opening seven league matches this time. The 27-year-old Lazio forward scored six times in qualifying.

SPIRIT

Italy arguably overachieved at Euro 2016, with Conte creating such a strong sense of team unity that the Azzurri surpassed all expectation.

That spirit remains.

“All together we strove for victory,” Insigne said after Monday’s win in Albania. “That’s the right spirit with which to face every match and give everything right until the end.”

World Cup’s only black coach says there should be more

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MOSCOW (AP) — The only black coach at this year’s World Cup says there is a need for more in soccer.

“In European countries, in major clubs, you see lots of African players. Now we need African coaches for our continent to go ahead,” Senegal’s Aliou Cisse said through a translator on Monday, a day ahead of his nation’s World Cup opener against Poland.

[ MORE: Where to watch Tuesday’s games, feat. Colombia and Egypt ]

The percentage of black players at this year’s tournament and with clubs in the world’s top leagues is far higher.

Cisse was captain of Senegal when it reached the 2002 quarterfinals in the nation’s only previous World Cup appearance.

“I am the only black coach in this World Cup. That is true,” Cisse said. “But really these are debates that disturb me. I think that football is a universal sport and that the color of your skin is of very little importance.”

[ MORE: Harry Kane “buzzing” after two goals | Southgate encouraged ]

FIFA did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

Cisse cited Florent Ibenge, the coach of Congo’s national team, as a sign of progress.

“I think we have a new generation that is working, that is doing its utmost, and beyond being good players with a past of professional footballers,” Cisse said. “We are very good in our tactics, and we have the right to be part of the top international coaches.”

Africa’s best performance at the World Cup has been to reach the quarterfinals, accomplished by Cameroon in 1990, Senegal in 2002 and Ghana in 2010.

[ MORE: Latest 2018 World Cup news ] 

“I have the certainty that one day an African team, an African country, will win the World Cup,” Cisse said. “It’s a bit more complicated in our countries. We have realities that are not there in other continents, but I think that the African continent is full of qualities. We are on the way, and I’m sure that Senegal, Nigeria or other African countries will be able win, just like Brazil, Germany or other European countries.”

A lack of minority managers also has been documented at the club level. The Sports People’s Think Tank said in November there were just three minority managers among the 92 English professional clubs as of Sept. 1.

World Cup: Saudi team safe after plane caught fire mid-flight

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The Saudi Arabian national team arrived alive and well in Rostov-on-Don, Russia, on Monday after a terrifying incident that saw their plane catch fire in the air.

[ MORE: Where to watch Tuesday’s games, feat. Colombia and Egypt ]

The blaze was caused by “a technical failure in one of the airplane engines,” which the airline, Rossiya, claims was caused by a bird flying into the engine. Each of the planes engines were reportedly in operation upon landing at its final destination.

The Saudi Arabian Football Federation posted a message on Twitter later on Monday, saying they “would like to reassure everyone that all the Saudi national team players are safe, after a technical failure in one of the airplane engines that has just landed in Rostov-on-Don airport, and now they’re heading to their residence safely.”

The Green Falcons will face Uruguay in Rostov, hoping to rebound from their tournament-opening 5-0 loss to Russia on Thursday, in each side’s second game of Group A action on Wednesday (11 a.m. ET).

Seismologists clarify Mexico fans didn’t cause earthquake

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MEXICO CITY (AP) — Mexico’s National Seismological Service says there was seismic activity around the country’s capital Sunday, but it wasn’t linked to soccer fans celebrating their country’s game-winning goal vs. Germany at the World Cup.

[ MORE: Where to watch Tuesday’s games, feat. Colombia and Egypt ]

The service says in a report that there were two small earthquakes at 10:24 a.m. and 12:01 p.m. The goal came around 11:35 a.m. local time.

A geological institute reported Sunday that seismic detectors had registered a false earthquake that may have been generated by “massive jumps” by fans.

[ MORE: Harry Kane “buzzing” after two goals | Southgate encouraged ]

Mexico’s Seismological Service explained Monday that the city’s normal bustle of traffic and other movement causes vibrations that are detected by sensitive instruments.

It says those vibrations notably quieted during the match as people gathered in front of TVs to watch, and rose after the goal.

WATCH: World Cup, Day 6 — Colombia vs. Japan; Salah’s debut?

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Day 6 of the 2018 World Cup is up next, on Tuesday — and would you believe it? — there’s another three games on the schedule. This whole “back-to-back-to-back games of soccer” thing isn’t so bad.

[ MORE: Latest 2018 World Cup news ] 

Up first, it’s the 2018 debut of Colombia, winners of tens hundreds of millions of hearts in 2014, as they take on Japan. In the day’s other Group H fixture, it’ll be Robert Lewandowski and Poland facing Sadio Mane and Senegal. Star power aplenty.

Then, we swing things back around to Group A, where the hosts Russia will look to continue their hot start against Egypt with Mohamed Salah expected to make his World Cup debut.

Below is Tuesday’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 – Tuesday, June 19

Group H
Colombia vs. Japan: Saransk, 8 a.m. ET – LIVE COVERAGE
Poland vs. Senegal: Moscow, 11 a.m. ET – LIVE COVERAGE

Group A
Russia vs. Egypt: St. Petersburg, 2 p.m. ET – LIVE COVERAGE