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Chiellini injury deals Italy late blow for Spain qualifier

Madrid (AFP) – Italy’s plans for a vital World Cup qualifier away to Spain on Saturday were dealt a huge blow when veteran defender Giorgio Chiellini injured a calf muscle in training on Friday.

The Juventus centre-back has been ruled out for both the trip to Madrid and Tuesday’s qualifier at home to Israel.

“Giorgio Chiellini will not be available to (Giampero) Ventura for the Azzurri’s next two encounters with Spain and Israel,” the Italian Football Federation said in a statement.

Victory for either side at Real Madrid’s Santiago Bernabeu is likely to be decisive in deciding which side qualifies directly for the World Cup in Russia next year.

Both countries are tied on 16 points atop Group G of European qualifying with second place only good enough for a perilous two-legged playoff in November.

However, a 1-1 draw when the sides met in Turin last October and a better goal difference means Spain hold the upper hand.

“We can’t predict the future, but we recognise the importance of the game. For sure, that has not escaped us,” said Spain boss Julen Lopetegui on Friday.

“After this game we have three more that we have to play and win, but the objective is to beat a great Italian team.”

Lopetegui is unbeaten in 10 games as national team boss since Vicente del Bosque’s successful reign was brought to an end by a 2-0 defeat to Italy at Euro 2016.

However, Spain have only beaten Italy once from open play in 11 competitive meetings.

“We need to be prepared to be at our best at the Bernabeu on Saturday because we will need it,” added Lopetegui.

“What concerns us is to be as good a team as we can be in every moment of the game, to read the game, and reach that level of excellence the game will demand of us.”

– Pique jeers –

A big turnout at the Bernabeu may not be such a big advantage for the hosts if Barcelona defender Gerard Pique continues to be jeered by the home fans while playing for Spain.

Barca and Real Madrid’s rivalry means Pique and Real and Spain captain Sergio Ramos have frequently clashed on and off the field.

But the two have formed a formidable partnership in central defence for the past five years at international level and Ramos has repeatedly pleaded for the treatment dished out to Pique to stop.

“Pique has been exemplary with the national team and I ask all the fans to back us and make us feel at home,” said Ramos.

“We need to be realistic and aware that tomorrow we have a huge test with a World Cup at stake and a great team facing us.

“On the bright side, we are playing at home, with our fans and in a unique setting like the Bernabeu.”

The emergence of another Real favourite has helped sell out the Bernabeu as 21-year-old prodigy Marco Asensio looks set to make his first competitive international start after scoring four goals in five games so far this season.

However, Ramos is wary of the expectation of a nation falling on Asensio’s shoulders.

“The weight of the team both at Madrid and the national team doesn’t need to fall on him,” added Ramos.

“He will mark an era. My job is just to advise him as best I can.”

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