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Italy forced into key changes ahead of 2nd leg vs. Sweden

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MILAN (AP) The sight of Napoli winger Lorenzo Insigne being brought on for the final 15 minutes of Italy’s World Cup playoff in Sweden was a welcome one for away fans.

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With Italy trailing 1-0 in the first leg, the Azzurri desperately needed the creative skills of the 26-year-old Insigne.

But fans and even the Italy players themselves were bemused when Insigne took up Marco Verratti’s central midfield role.

Insigne had to explain to his teammates, saying “in the middle” before shrugging his shoulders with resignation and responding “yes” to their incredulity.

The substitution failed to change the score and Italy was left at serious risk of failing to qualify for the World Cup for the first time in six decades.

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“The coach knows what kind of player I am, and when I’m called upon I always try to give my best,” Insigne said. “I’m sorry I wasn’t able to make a difference tonight. If the coach asks me to play for one minute or 90, I’ll always try to give 100 per cent.

“The coach asked if I felt ready to replace Verratti and I said yes because we have to give 100 per cent in any role the coach asks us to play, and even more with the national jersey … I’m disappointed, but now we must get our heads down and work because we have the return match Monday and we have to try to win it at all costs.”

It is this creative midfield role that will be Italy coach Gian Piero Ventura’s biggest headache as he ponders what changes to ring for the second leg in Milan on Monday.

Verratti is suspended after picking up a second booking in Sweden. Jorginho has been in fantastic form for Napoli this season and seems the most natural replacement but he has never played for Italy before. However, the only other option is Roberto Gagliardini and the Inter Milan midfielder lacks the offensive capabilities needed this time round.

Italy was too predictable and slow to punish Sweden’s well-organized defense on Friday. Although Ventura shelved his unpopular 4-2-4 formation, the 3-5-2 system didn’t work either.

The players appear perfectly suited to a 4-3-3 system used by Napoli and Roma, who are playing the best football in Italy at the moment.

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Ventura will have better options up front for the return match. Simone Zaza should be back from the knee injury which kept him out of Friday’s match, while Andrea Belotti — who has only just returned from injury — will also be in better shape.

Matteo Darmian was Italy’s best player on Friday and should start again at San Siro.

The veteran “BBC” defense of Leonardo Bonucci, Andrea Barzagli and Giorgio Chiellini also proved solid. Italy goalkeeper Gianluigi Buffon was rarely tested and the only goal was deflected in off Daniele De Rossi.

Buffon has called for Italy to play with more ferocity in Milan.

“We’ll need a physical Italy side,” the Italy captain said. “But a physical match will not be enough: we have to keep our balance, conceding a goal would be disastrous.

“We can talk about our mistakes but it won’t help anything. We need to hold our heads high and stand tall to come back. We need to be fierce, us and the whole San Siro.”

PSG forced to make do without five regulars against Dijon

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Paris Saint-Germain has faced little competition thus far in 2017/18 during Ligue 1 play, but perhaps their own injuries could be their first domestic downfall.

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The French giants will be without five key players for Saturday’s trip to Dijon, including Marco Verratti, Edinson Cavani and Thiago Motta, says manager Unai Emery.

Additionally, Layvin Kurzawa and Thiago Silva will also have their presence missed for the away fixture, but Emery expects all five players to be available for Tuesday’s UEFA Champions League match against Anderlecht.

On the positive side, Angel di Maria, Javier Pastore and Thomas Meunier have returned to fitness ahead of the weekend, making their availability likely.

Verratti says he chose PSG stay over Barcelona

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Paris Saint-Germain midfielder Marco Verratti told reporters on Sunday that, while links connecting him to Barcelona did indeed have some truth, he decided to stay in France.

There was something, but that was as far as it went,” Verratti said to Sky Sport Italia. “We didn’t have any other negotiations. I decided to stay on this path and I’m happy for it.”

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The 24-year-old has long been linked with Barcelona, and it would seem their interest in him over the years has been true. Verratti is an exquisite passer and would fit the Barcelona style perfectly.

They have been searching for a creative spark to sit between the midfield passers and the strikers up front, something which Verratti is capable of. Lionel Messi is tasked with much of the creative duties, and the club is looking for someone to take the weight off his shoulders.

Verratti also said that he chose to stay at PSG before Neymar decided to sign up to play in the French capital, meaning the Brazilian’s addition did not influence his decision at all.

Transfer rumor roundup: Man United to swoop for Verratti?

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With the Premier League season lurking, several of England’s top clubs are looking to put the finishing touches on their summer with quality last-minute signings.

Manchester United has been in the market for a holding midfield this transfer window, with Chelsea’s Nemanja Matic and Eric Dier of Tottenham long linked to the Red Devils, but now another name could be made available to Jose Mourinho.

Marco Verratti is reportedly growing more and more tired at PSG, and while the Italian does still wish to move to Barcelona this summer, he would be open to signing with United if the Blaugrana don’t come calling.

Chelsea could be closing in on another young Brazilian talent, and Blues will be looking to beat out Man United and others for his services.

Fluminense forward Richarlison is the player of interest, and the Blues are prepared to duel with the Red Devils and AC Milan in order to secure the 20-year-old’s signature.

Meanwhile, Juventus is looking to Liverpool’s Emre Can to help out in the midfield after a strong season for the Reds in the Premier League.

Verratti signs on with super agent Mino Raiola

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The plot is thickening when it comes to Marco Verratti, the want-away Paris Saint-Germain midfielder reportedly targeting a move to Barcelona or Manchester United.

Verratti confirmed Wednesday that he’s left agent Donato Di Campli in favor of the services of super agent Mino Raiola, whose clientele includes Romelu Lukaku, Paul Pogba, Zlatan Ibrahimovic, Sergio Romero, and Henrikh Mkhitaryan.

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No, he doesn’t only represent United men — he has several AC Milan charges as well as PSG’s Blaise Matuidi and Nice striker Mario Balotelli — but the move will only serve to get Old Trafford tongues wagging at the idea of the stalwart Italian center midfielder giving more freedom to Pogba.

Verratti, 24, remains contracted to PSG through 2020-21, and Barcelona has acknowledged interest in the midfielder. He’s also been linked with a part swap for Neymar.