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Italy playing tonight for its World Cup life

A World Cup without Italy?

It's possible.

Italy starts its home-and-home playoff with Russia tonight, needing to win the total-goals series to gain a spot in the 32-nation field for next summer's tournament in France.

Italy, a three-time champion and 1994 final-game loser to Brazil, likely would be happy with a tie at Moscow and hope for a victory in the second leg at Naples on Nov. 15.

Russia coach Boris Ignatiev has to replace injured defender Yuri Nikiforov and unlikely will go on all-out attack against the Italians in a game likely to have few goals.

"I would accept a 1-0 victory," Ignatiev said. "The most important thing is not to let them score a goal."

In other games tonight, Belgium is at Ireland, Ukraine at Croatia and Yugoslavia at Hungary.

HORSES: The U.S. Equestrian Team, fresh from its most successful season in nearly two decades, hopes to keep the momentum going in the Nations' Cup at the 114th annual National Horse Show. The international competition is the highlight of the show that starts today and ends Saturday with the $50,000 Budweiser Grand Prix of New York.

BOWLING: Tom Baker led after five rounds of the PBA Ebonite Challenge in Indianapolis, 87 pins ahead of Mike Edwards.

ET CETERA: The Cardinals, Rams and Blues oppose an effort by St. Louis to apply a 5 percent amusement tax to the full price of luxury suites and other exclusive seats at their games. The tax is applied to the gross receipts of sports admission charges minus the state sales tax. At issue is what constitutes an admission charge. The Los Angeles City Council approved the development of a $300-million downtown sports and entertainment arena that will be home to the Lakers and Kings. The 22,000-seat arena, to be built by the Kings' owners, is expected to open in October 1999.

_ Compiled from Times wires.