Coach downplays Balotelli exclusion

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Coach downplays Balotelli exclusion

Italy Coach Antonio Conte has played down his exclusion of Liverpool forward Mario Balotelli for upcoming European Championship qualifying matches.

Since transferring to Liverpool from AC Milan after the World Cup, Balotelli has yet to score in five appearances in the Premier League and also left off last month’s Italy squad.

“He has started on a new path, it’s not easy,’’ said Conte. “Let’s give him time to integrate himself in this new league. We’re following him as we follow all the players who play abroad. I make call-ups, not exclusions, which are two very different things.’’

Southampton striker Graziano Pelle was included for the first time after scoring four goals in seven Premier League appearances since his summer move from Feyenoord.

“Graziano represents that which I’ve said from the very first day - meritocracy,’’ said Conte. “He’s a footballer who has scored 50 goals in the past two years. Now he’s in a league which on paper is more competitive than the Dutch one and he is becoming a key player.’’

Tension remained high in Italy following the controversial 3-2 victory by Juventus over Serie A rival Roma on Sunday night.

Seven Juventus players are on the Italy squad - including Andrea Pirlo, who replaced the injured Giacomo Bonaventura - as well as two Roma players.

Italy hosts Azerbaijan in Palermo on Friday, then makes a short trip to visit Malta three days later.

The Azzurri won, 2-0, in Norway in their opening qualifying match, days after beating the Netherlands by the same score in Conte’s first match in charge. AP
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