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Italy defender Chiellini injured, to miss qualifier in Spain

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FLORENCE, Italy (AP) Italy’s preparations for a World Cup qualifier against Spain have taken a big hit following an injury to top defender Giorgio Chiellini.

The Italian soccer federation says Chiellini injured his right calf in training Friday morning and left the team, meaning he will miss both the game in Spain and another qualifier against Israel on Tuesday.

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Italy plays Spain in Madrid in a match that will likely decide which team qualifies automatically from Group G. Both teams have five wins in addition to the draw between them last year in Turin. The loser could go into a playoff.

Chiellini was expected to start the match against Spain alongside fellow defenders Andrea Barzagli and Leonardo Bonucci. It wasn’t immediately clear who will replace him.

Italy coach Ventura signs new contract until 2020

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ROME (AP) Italy coach Gian Piero Ventura will remain in charge of the Azzurri until 2020 after signing a new contract.

Carlo Tavecchio, the president of the Italian football federation, announced the deal on Wednesday in a news conference with Ventura.

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The 69-year-old Ventura thanked the federation for “its trust” in him, adding: “There is the absolute conviction that we can achieve something important.”

Ventura took charge of Italy in July 2016, replacing Antonio Conte, who left to join Chelsea after steering the Azzurri to the quarterfinals of the European Championship.

Italy has not lost any of its World Cup qualifiers under Ventura and is level on points with Spain at the top of Group G. It plays Spain in Madrid on Sept. 2.

Update: Gianluigi Buffon to miss Italy clash with England

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Earlier today, the news broke that Italy goalkeeper Gianluigi Buffon had injured his ankle during training, and needed tests to determine whether he would be able to start against England.

The reports are in, and the news isn’t good for the azzurri. The ‘keeper, who’s been first-choice for his country for over a decade, will sit out Italy’s first match.

Italy coach Cesare Prandelli first described the injury as a light twist, but after undergoing physiotherapy, the injury was revealed to be more serious than previously thought. There is no word yet on whether Buffon will be available for the game against Costa Rica next Friday, or the final group stage game, against Uruguay, next Tuesday.

In absence of Buffon, Prandelli will deploy Salvatore Sirigu between the sticks. Sirigu has experience at the highest levels, as the starting goalkeeper for Paris Saint-Germain, but he’s also been dealing with injury. His bruised ribs aren’t enough to prompt Italy to turn to Mattia Perin, however. The 21-year-old, who plays for Genoa, has yet to be capped for Italy.

Italy are also without Riccardo Montolivo, who broke his leg in the warm-up match against Ireland and had to be cut from the squad, and Mattia De Sciglio, who was injured in training earlier in the week. Without three of their expected starting XI, will Italy stumble? Or are they strong enough to overcome England?

Buffon a doubt for Italy against England

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When fans of gli azzurri hear the words “Gigi Buffon injury,” icy shivers travel up and down their spine. The goalkeeper has been with the Italian national team since 1997, becoming first choice in 2002 and was between the sticks when they lifted the World Cup in 2006. The current captain is so revered that his nickname is “San Gigi.”

In 2006, Buffon conceded just two goals, keeping five clean sheets during the tournament. But in 2010, he suffered injury and was replaced during halftime of Italy’s first match. The azzurri went on to finish last in their group.

In other words, fans of Italy really, really don’t want Gianluigi Buffon injured.

They’ll be waiting with baited breath throughout the day. Buffon twisted his ankle in training, and is currently undergoing tests to determine if he’ll miss out on the match against England. While the injury at first seemed slight, there are now fears he has done damage to his knee as well.

In absence of San Gigi, Italy have two viable alternatives. Salvatore Sirigu moved from Palermo to Paris Saint-Germain in 2011, and has been solid for the French champions ever since. Also available is Mattia Perin who, at age 21, appears the heir apparent to Buffon’s gloves. But his youth will likely go against him and, should Buffon not be available, it’s almost certain Sirigu will start.

Italy fans will be hoping it doesn’t come to that. Group D, with England, Uruguay and Costa Rica, certainly looks much stronger than the group they were drawn into in South Africa. The loss of their first-choice goalkeeper – and captain, the man that marshalls the not-always-airtight defense – could be devastating.

2014 World Cup team preview: Italy

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Getting to know…Italy
Gli azzurri are aiming to put a fifth star on their country’s crest. Italy have won the World Cup four times. They lifted the trophy the first time they entered (and hosted) the competition, and took it again the next time around. Then there was a wait of nearly forty years before Italy won again, this time in Spain. Their most recent win came in 2006, when the azzurri beat France in a penalty shootout. 

Italy didn’t do so hot in the last World Cup. Drawn into a group with Paraguay, Slovakia and New Zealand, they looked to be a lock to move on to the next round. Instead, they drew two and finished out by losing to Slovakia, finishing bottom of the group. The azzurri went on to redeem themselves at Euro 2012, however, where they wound up second only to Spain.

If you’re curious as to why Italy are the blues, when their tricolore flag is red, white, and green, it’s all down to royalty. That shade of azure blue comes from one of the royal houses that played a role in unifying Italy. The blue was then adopted in the seal of the Italian presidency, and is traditionally worn by Italian national teams.

Now, if that question comes up in a World Cup pub quiz, you’re all set.

Record in qualifying
Undefeated in ten, Italy took top in UEFA Group B.

But there are a few points to qualify here. First, Italy found themselves challenged by teams such as Armenia and Bulgaria – they’ll be running up against much stiffer competition in Brazil.

Second, nine of Italy’s 19 goals were scored by players not going to the World Cup. Dani Osvaldo, Alessandro Florenzi, and Mattia Destro were not selected, while Riccardo Montolivo was a last minute scratch due to injury. Cesare Prandelli is more about the system than the talents of the individuals, but this still may be cause for concern.

A look at Group D
Italy found themselves in a dangerous group, but not one that’s unbeatable.

Costa Rica are almost certain to go out, especially with two of their best players injured. The real struggle will be among Italy, Uruguay and England. Uruguay head to the tournament with a rather aged squad, but if Luis Suárez is fit, they’re almost certain to get through to the next round. Then again, England are likely prepared to sit back and close down an opponent, keeping a solid defense to ensure they progress.

In other words, this could very well be one of the groups in which advancement is determined by goal difference. Which could make things very exciting indeed.

Game schedule

Saturday, June 14 at 6 p.m. ET: England vs. Italy (Arena Amazonia, Manaus)

Friday, June 20 at 12 noon ET: Italy vs. Costa Rica (Arena Pernambuco, Recife)

Tuesday, June 24 at 12 noon ET: Italy vs. Uruguay (Estadio das Dunas, Natal)

Star player

Hands down, it’s Mario Balotelli. He lifted Italy to near-dizzying heights in the last European Championship, and if he’s on form, he’ll be the one pulling them through to the later stages.

Notice we’re talking “star” quality, here. If you’re looking for the key to Italy’s play, that lies with Andrea Pirlo. When the midfield maestro is at his silky-smooth best, Italy ticks along beautiful. But if the opposition man-marks Pirlo out of a game, the azzurri start to struggle.

But Balotelli is a star. He’s a star in the way he plays – he’s capable of getting himself into dangerous positions, where he’ll either produce a sublime finish in the tiniest amount of space, or, yes, win his side a penalty. The drama definitely follows wherever Balotelli goes. He’ll appeal to the referee, he’ll sulk if taken out of the game, he may even set off fireworks in his hotel room. But it’s worth it to watch him score goals.

Manager
Cesare Prandelli was brought on from Fiorentina in the summer of 2010, but unfortunately for the azzurri, he didn’t actually take the reins until after their dreadful World Cup. He then reworked the side, guiding them to the final in Euro 2012.

Prandelli is an interesting character, emphasizing coherence in the squad almost above all else. Players that violate his Code of Ethics will find themselves on the sidelines. He certainly plays favorites with the Italian players, but it can’t be denied that he knows what he’s doing. His Italy side plays a patient game with a rather slow build up – but don’t go calling them defensive. Let’s leave that old stereotype aside, shall we? They’re respectable enough at the back, but it’s the midfield play that makes them shine.

Secret weapon
Gianluigi Buffon. This will be the 36-year-old’s fourth World Cup, and his fourth as the starting goalkeeper for Italy. His time in South Africa was cut short, however, when he left at halftime in the first group stage game. Injury kept him out of the remaining matches – and we know how Italy fared.

Instead, the captain will want to replicate his performance at the 2006 tournament, when he let in just two goals, keeping five clean sheets. Known as “San Gigi”, it’s Buffon that will rescue Italy if the defense falls apart. While prone to occasional gaffs, he’s still one of the top goalkeepers in the world, and he’ll likely pull off at least one heroic save to prove it.

Prediction
Apparently people don’t like it when I joke about friendlies carrying great predictive value. But, while Italy have a strong squad, they’re not flashy, and they’re unlikely to make it past the quarterfinals. If they finish top of the group, they’ll most likely emerge from the Round of 16 to face Spain, where they’ll be outplayed as they were two years ago. If they finish second, I’m tipping Colombia to be the ones that send them home.