Italy relying on young strike duo for Norway visit
ROME (AP) — Italy will rely on a pair of young strikers for its opening European Championship qualifier at Norway on Tuesday.
With Mario Balotelli dropped from the squad and Giuseppe Rossi out with knee problems, 24-year-old Ciro Immobile and 23-year-old Simone Zaza impressed in a 2-0 win over the Netherlands last week and should start again in Oslo.
Italy coach Antonio Conte has brought in a burst of fresh energy to the Azzurri following their first-round elimination from the World Cup, after which Cesare Prandelli resigned. The performance in Brazil was a sharp contract from Italy’s run to the final of Euro 2012.
“The best players belong on the national team, and it doesn’t matter whether they’re 15 or 40,” said Italy captain Gianluigi Buffon, who is 36.
Immobile led Serie A with 22 goals for Torino last season before transferring to Borussia Dortmund. Zaza plays for Sassuolo, although Juventus holds an option on his contract.
Italy has won only once in five previous visits to Norway.
“We can’t be superficial against a physical and strong-minded squad like Norway,” Buffon said.
Making matters more complicated, Italy is without defenders Giorgio Chiellini (calf injury) and Andrea Barzagli (right heel surgery). Also, midfielder Claudio Marchisio is suspended and forward Stephan El Shaarawy is questionable due to a left ankle problem.
Also in Group H on Tuesday, Bulgaria visits Azerbaijan and Croatia hosts Malta.
Norway has only qualified for the European Championship once, in 2000, although this will be the country’s best chance in years with the final field expanded from 16 to 24 teams.
The top two finishers from the nine groups qualify automatically, as does the best third-placed team. Eight more teams can qualify through the playoffs.
Norway lost to England last week in a friendly, the team’s sixth since coach Per-Mathias Hoegmo took over a year ago.
“We’re trying to shut out everything around us and we’re working hard right now,” Norway defender Tom Hoegli said.
Mats Moeller Daehli, a promising 19-year-old midfielder for Norway, is in doubt after picking up an injury against England.
Associated Press writer Matti Huuhtanen in Helsinki contributed to this report.