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Few positives for Italy after missing out on World Cup

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MILAN (AP) Over 180 minutes of soccer, Italy showed exactly why it is not going to the World Cup.

The national team was poor during a 2-0 loss to Argentina on Friday and needed a late penalty – awarded on video review – to salvage a 1-1 draw against England on Tuesday.

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Italy failed to qualify for the World Cup for the first time since 1958, and changes in the team were expected. But although interim coach Luigi Di Biagio handed debuts to 20-year-old players Federico Chiesa and Patrick Cutrone, much of the lineup for his first match in charge consisted of veterans held over from the qualifying campaign.

Chiesa was one of the few bright spots for Italy, which barely avoided going scoreless for a fourth straight match for the first time in the national team’s 108-year history.

The Fiorentina winger was brought on 10 minutes into the second half and impressed on the left flank, running at defenders. He was also the player who was fouled late, leading to Lorenzo Insigne’s equalizing penalty.

“We deserved the draw,” Chiesa said, “and it’s important for our morale and the atmosphere in the Italy camp.”

Chiesa, who turned 20 in October, and teenage goalkeeper Gianluigi Donnarumma were the youngest Italy players on the field, and the duo could form the spine of the Azzurri for many years to come.

“I’m very happy because after making my debut I managed to play another match with the national team,” Chiesa said. “I always dreamed about making my debut for Italy but also to continue playing in the next matches.

Another positive for Italy was that the players seemed to have found their team spirit – which was sorely lacking in both World Cup playoff matches against Sweden and in several of the final matches of former coach Gian Piero Ventura’s tenure.

“I am happy because we showed no fear in front of 80,000 people, in an important stadium such as Wembley,” Di Biagio said. “Independent of the result, which is a positive one, I would have been satisfied with the performance anyway.

“What’s most important is the growth of these guys. These players have character, I can guarantee you that … even when we were losing they never stopped chasing the draw and then they tried to win. We certainly took a step forward.”

Despite the positive injection of youth, others who have performed well for their clubs continued to struggle in the national shirt.

Ciro Immobile has scored eight goals in his past nine matches for Lazio, but only once in his past 11 matches for Italy. On Tuesday, the 28-year-old forward missed a number of chances, including two in the opening three minutes against England at Wembley Stadium.

Insigne was also guilty of wasting opportunities before converting from the spot near the end.

The 26-year-old Napoli forward, who surprisingly was hardly used in the playoffs against Sweden, looked lost for most of the match against England. But then, somewhat out of nowhere, he almost scored in the 80th minute after linking up with Napoli teammate Jorginho.

Italy’s next two matches will be against France on June 1 and the Netherlands three days later, when the Azzurri should have a permanent coach. An announcement is slated for May 20.

Carlo Ancelotti, Antonio Conte and Roberto Mancini are the leading candidates, while Di Biagio could also be given the job fulltime.

“This has been a fantastic experience which has really given me a lot,” Di Biagio said. “These guys aren’t so mediocre as everyone wants to make out. They are Italy, they have to understand what they represent. We’ll see if it will be me or not, but that’s not a problem.”

Usain Bolt to trial with A-League’s Mariners

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SYDNEY (AP) Eight-time Olympic gold medalist Usain Bolt will trial for six weeks with the Central Coast Mariners from next month in a deal which could see him play for a season in Australian football’s A-League.

[ MORE: Thierry Henry leaves TV job to focus on managerial career ]

Australian football agent Tony Rallis said Monday a “deal between the Mariners and Usain Bolt in principle has been agreed, subject to a couple of benchmarks.”

Rallis said it would be necessary for the 31-year-old Bolt to trial and for Football Federation Australia to support his salary.

“Once the FFA comes back and says that they’ll be part of the process, we’re going to the trial,” Rallis said.

Bolt has a long-held ambition to play professional football and, since his retirement from the track, has trialed with Germany’s Borussia Dortmund and Stromsgodset in Norway.

[ MORE: Transfer rumor roundup: Bale’s future in Madrid; Chelsea’s makeover ]

“If he’s competitive, he will lift our A-League profile,” Rallis said. “He will create dreams for young people and he will give the A-League a profile no amount of money can buy. This bloke’s an ambitious athlete. The A-League needed a hero and we got superman.”

Rallis said the owner of the Mariners would guarantee 70 percent of his salary and the FFA would be expected to fund the remainder.

Mariners chief executive Shaun Mielekamp said there was still a lot of work to do and a trial was imperative to determine Bolt’s skill level.

“It would only be big if he can play and if he can go really, really well,” he said. “Beause if he comes and he’s not up to the level then it actually has a detrimental effect.

“But if he comes and he’s as good as our reports are saying that he can be, then that would be very exciting and I’m sure that this stadium would be pretty full every time he put the boots on.”

Blind to leave Man United, return to Ajax

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Daley Blind will leave Manchester United this summer and return to Ajax, the club from which the Red Devils signed him in 2014, per a brief and open-ended announcement from the Premier League side on Monday.

[ MORE: Thierry Henry leaves TV job to focus on managerial career ]

The 28-year-old Dutch defender/midfielder was previously an every-game player at Man United, from 2014-2016, but he was limited to just seven PL appearances (four starts) and 361 minutes (plus another six starts and 540 minutes in the UEFA Champions League) last season.

While the final details of Blind’s move are yet to be announced, it has been reported that United will receive a fee in the neighborhood of $18.5 million after paying $18 million for his services following the last World Cup.

World Cup win gives France new set of heroes, a needed boost

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PARIS (AP) — The welcome was grand, the emotion visceral as France’s victorious World Cup team rolled down Paris’ Champs-Elysees Avenue in an open-top bus Monday while tens of thousands of people cheered with unrestrained pride and jets streamed the national colors — blue, white, red — overhead.

[ MORE: With flags, song, pride, French celebrate unifying victory ]

The crowd that waited for hours to greet the soccer team, under a hot sun and amid celebratory smoke bombs that choked the air, got its moment hours after the team returned from Russia to hoist the gold trophy on French soil for the second time in 20 years.

The national team’s 4-2 win over Croatia on Sunday gave France a new set of heroes, many of whom represent the changing face of a diverse, multicultural country with which not all French citizens have yet reckoned.

The red carpet welcome for the World Cup winners continued at the Elysee Palace, where President Emmanuel Macron threw an informal garden party that had 1,000 children and 300 athletes from local soccer clubs as guests.

Many of the invited clubs are based in the poor neighborhoods French that produced the players who made up France’s youthful, diverse World Cup team, including 19-year-old breakout star Kylian Mbappe. Members of the club he grew up with in suburban Bondy attended the party.

“Merci!” Macron, the youngest person to become France’s president, told the guests. “This team is beautiful because it was united.”

Addressing the team, Macron offered advice.

“Don’t change,” he said, adding, “Never forget where you come from.”

[ MORE: Thierry Henry leaves TV job to focus on managerial career ]

Team captain and goalie Hugo Lloris, brandishing the trophy from soccer’s eminent tournament, and coach Didier Deschamps led the team onto the red carpet at the Elysee courtyard. With Republican Guards standing motionless in full dress uniforms, the squad quickly broke into party mode for the official photos.

The fun continued in the garden with chants led by midfielder Paul Pogba and off-the-cuff songs.

The victory came at a time when many French were in need of good news, and the magic provided a sense that a grand coming together might at least paper over political, economic and social fissures for a while.

“Eternal Happiness” read Monday’s headline in French sports daily L’Equipe, summing up the mood of many who hoped the euphoria would last.

Before the reception, the Champs-Elysees became the epicenter of national pride for the third day in a row, following the post-World Cup celebrations that brought hundreds of thousands to the fame avenue Sunday and a Bastille Day parade of French military might Saturday.

The team appeared elated, too, during its victory lap on the bus Monday. Players threw scarves into the crowd and recorded the action.

[ MORE: Transfer rumor roundup: Bale’s future in Madrid; Chelsea’s makeover ]

Several Paris Metro stations were temporarily adjusting their names to honor the team and its members, the transport authority tweeted. The Champs-Elysees Clemenceau has become the Deschamps-Elysees Clemenceau to honor coach Didier Deschamps.

The Etoile station is, for now, “On a 2 Etoiles” (We have 2 stars), to denote France’s second World Cup victory. The Victor Hugo station is now Victor Hugo Lloris, after France’s standout goalie and team captain.

“We are linked for life now with this Cup,” defender Raphael Varane told BFM-TV on Monday before departing from Moscow, evoking the theme of unity that French partiers have consistently evoked.

Macron exulted on the field in Moscow and in the locker room, hugging players as they received their medals even as the skies poured rain. The president clearly hoped the World Cup glow would rub off on him, raising him up in the eyes of a nation where his economic reforms have drawn fierce protests and labor strikes.

He meets Tuesday with business representatives and an eye on mobilizing them in needy neighborhoods of France.

It was the players, though, who captured the French imagination.

Sports Minister Laura Flessel, who met the team at the airport, told Europe-1 radio that the World Cup victory allows France’s youth — like those in the poor suburbs where many of the players grew up — “to dare to believe in their dreams.”

The patriotic fervor sparked by the World Cup did not prevent the vandalism and violence that sometimes accompany public celebrations in France. Broken shop windows and signs of looting lined a section of the Champs-Elysees. Authorities detained 90 people for questioning in the Paris region and some 290 around France.

Thierry Henry leaves TV job to focus on managerial career

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Thierry Henry has walked away from his lucrative television punditry job in the UK in order to focus all of his time and energy on his “long-term ambition to become a football manager.”

[ MORE: Transfer rumor roundup: Bale’s future in Madrid; Chelsea’s makeover ]

Henry spent the last four years in punditry after retiring as a player in 2014. He most recently took time away from the television studio to work his other professional gig: assistant manager for Belgium at the 2018 World Cup.

“Over the last 4 years I have had some extremely rewarding coaching experiences in football,” he said in a series of posts from his Twitter account. “These experiences have only made me more determined to fulfill my long term ambition to become a football manager.

“It is with sadness, therefore, that I have decided that I must leave [Sky Sports] to enable me to spend more time on the pitch and concentrate on my journey to achieving that goal.

“I would like to thank everyone at Sky for making me feel so welcome and at ease throughout my time with them, and I wish them all the best for the future. Great memories.”

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Indeed, Henry, 40, has made no attempts to conceal the fact he would like to become a top-tier manager in the future, and he has remained quite dedicated to that objective in taking on the job of assistant to Robert Martinez beginning in 2016.

It’ll be fascinating to see who give Henry his first opportunity as a first-team manager. Will he go straight into the Premier League based on name recognition alone? Perhaps the Championship, where Frank Lampard leads Derby County? Or, will he take a path similar to that of his former teammate, Patrick Vieira, whose first managerial post was in MLS — where Henry played four and a half seasons for New York Red Bulls — before making the jump to Europe, landing at Ligue 1 side Nice?

The likeliest scenario, however, is as follows: through one of his invaluable personal contacts in the game, Henry will land a job as a no. 2 at a European club and be constantly linked — similarly to Mikel Arteta at Manchester City — with a move elsewhere every time an intriguing job comes open.