August 31, 2017

BARCELONA, Spain (AP) Spain is hoping that it has found its next great talent.

After his breakout start to the season with Real Madrid, Marco Asensio is expected to help Spain against Italy on Saturday and take a huge step toward qualifying for the World Cup in Russia.

The 21-year-old forward is Madrid's leading scorer through the first weeks of the campaign with four goals in five matches.

Asensio is now set to make his fourth appearance for Spain when the 2010 World Cup champions face Italy in a highly anticipated match that will likely decide which team wins their qualifying group.

Spain and Italy have 16 points each at the top of Group G before the match at the Santiago Bernabeu Stadium. Spain leads Italy on goal difference. The group winner qualifies for next year's tournament in Russia, while the runner-up must go through a playoff. The two teams drew 1-1 when they played in Turin in October.

Spain has struggled to find younger players capable of maintaining the stellar standards set by the group that dominated world soccer for almost a decade by winning the 2010 World Cup and the 2008 and 2012 European Championships.

Julen Lopetegui replaced Vicente del Bosque as coach after Spain bowed out of the 2016 European Championship in the last 16 against Italy. But despite the emergence of Francisco ''Isco'' Alarcon and Saul Niguez, Lopetegui has continued to rely on midfielders Andres Iniesta (33) and David Silva (31) to lead its attack.

Asensio is ready to change that. Spanish media reports said this week that Lopetegui practiced with Asensio playing as a ''false 9,'' a playmaker in the position of a traditional striker. Spain bewildered many an adversary with Cesc Fabregas as a ''false 9'' under Del Bosque, including Italy in a 4-0 rout to win the Euro 2012 final.

Lopetegui, however, is keeping his options open - and Italy guessing - before the big match.

''We have an idea, but there are always doubts that we will clear up between tomorrow and the next day,'' Lopetegui told COPE radio on Wednesday. ''We will have a good side whoever plays.''

Spain's rising talent could also play alongside one of its greatest strikers, David Villa, who returns to the team after a three-year absence. The 35-year-old Villa, Spain's all-time leading scorer with 59 goals in 97 matches, is back after maintaining his scoring touch with New York City FC.

''Asensio is doing more than enough to be a starter. We will be enjoying him for many years,'' Villa said.

Asensio came up with Mallorca and was a target of Barcelona until Madrid swooped in to sign him in 2015. Nobody expected that the boy who cost 4 million euros ($4.75 million) would one day jeopardize the starting job of Gareth Bale.

But with his speed and superb strike from long range, the forward is making a strong case for Zinedine Zidane to break up his trio of Bale, Cristiano Ronaldo and Karim Benzema.

Asensio had already capped Madrid's 4-1 win over Juventus in the Champions League final last year. He then picked right back up to start this season with two brilliant goals from distance to help Madrid beat Barcelona 5-1 on aggregate in the Spanish Super Cup.

And with his pair of goals to salvage a 2-2 draw for Madrid on Sunday, the crowd made it clear with its applause and jeers that it wants him to play over Bale.

Asensio has yet to score for Spain in three matches, which include only one start in his debut in May 2016 in a friendly against Bosnia that Spain won 3-1.

Asensio will next be tested by Italy's vaunted defense, anchored by goalkeeper Gianluigi Buffon and defenders Leonardo Bonucci and Giorgio Chiellini.

Lopetegui is trying to protect Asensio from the hubbub and heeds patience.

''We have seen other situations like this one, young boys who arrive and make a big impact,'' Lopetegui said. ''The high expectations surrounding him shouldn't take away from his natural manner. He must push all this aside.''

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