Balotelli left off Italy’s squad; Pelle called up
ROME (AP) — Mario Balotelli was left off Italy’s squad again on Saturday by new coach Antonio Conte, who clearly has noticed the striker’s troubles with his new club Liverpool.
Since transferring from AC Milan after the World Cup, Balotelli has yet to score in five appearances in the English Premier League.
For Italy’s 2016 European Championship qualifiers against Azerbaijan and Malta, in-form Southampton striker Graziano Pelle received his first call up, as did 20-year-old Empoli center back Daniele Rugani.
The other forwards included were Ciro Immobile, Simone Zaza, Pablo Osvaldo, Mattia Destro and Sebastian Giovinco.
With Andrea Pirlo and Daniele De Rossi unavailable, midfielders Thiago Motta of Paris Saint-Germain and Giacomo Bonaventura returned to the squad.
Italy hosts Azerbaijan in Palermo on Friday, then makes a short trip to visit Malta three days later.
With so little time between matches, Conte called up an extended squad of 26 players.
Having won its opening qualifier in Norway, Italy is tied for the Group H lead with Bulgaria and Croatia.
Balotelli was also left off the squad last month for a friendly win over the Netherlands and the Norway match, when Immobile and Zaza worked well as the forward pairing.
The 29-year-old Pelle has five goals in eight matches for Southampton this season and, at 1.94 meters (6-foot-4), gives Conte a physical option inside the area.
Last season, Pelle scored 23 goals in 28 matches for Feyenoord in the Dutch league but was ignored by then-Italy coach Cesare Prandelli, who resigned after the Azzurri’s first-round elimination from the World Cup.
Pirlo could return on Sunday for Juventus from a month out with a bruised right hip while De Rossi is still out with a torn left calf muscle.
Defenders Andrea Barzagli, Davide Astori and Gabriel Paletta are also out injured.
Goalkeepers: Gianluigi Buffon (Juventus), Mattia Perin (Genoa), Salvatore Sirigu (Paris Saint-Germain).
Defenders: Leonardo Bonucci (Juventus), Giorgio Chiellini (Juventus), Angelo Ogbonna (Juventus), Andrea Ranocchia (Inter Milan), Daniele Rugani (Empoli).
Midfielders: Alberto Aquilani (Fiorentina), Giacomo Bonaventura (Milan), Antonio Candreva (Lazio), Matteo Darmian (Torino), Mattia De Sciglio (AC Milan), Alessandro Florenzi (Roma), Claudio Marchisio (Juventus), Marco Parolo (Lazio), Manuel Pasqual (Fiorentina), Andrea Poli (Milan), Thiago Motta (Paris Saint-Germain), Marco Verratti (Paris Saint-Germain).
Forwards: Mattia Destro (Roma), Sebastian Giovinco (Juventus), Ciro Immobile (Borussia Dortmund), Pablo Osvaldo (Inter Milan), Graziano Pelle (Southampton), Simone Zaza (Sassuolo).