Gian Piero Ventura

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Italy’s Ventura calls in youth for games against Albania, Netherlands

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FLORENCE, Italy (AP) Italy coach Gian Piero Ventura is counting on his youngsters.

Ventura has not been afraid to bring in new players since he took charge after the 2016 European Championship, including giving teenage goalkeeper Gianluigi Donnarumma his debut.

“We all remember when I said there was a crop of youngsters who would need to be taken care of to build an important national team for the future,” Ventura said. “If we qualify for the World Cup then we could be a surprise because there is a huge hunger in these young players.”

Ventura has also organized two training camps to have a closer look at other young players, with a third planned for May.

“The young players must live, breath and experience the national team, only then will they be ready for important challenges,” he said. “We are convinced that the youngsters will be the future and we are giving them time to grow.

“(Andrea) Petagna and (Leonardo) Spinazzola have gone from the training camp to the full team. But It’s not enough to be young, you also have to have potential. Of course some guys have fulfilled expectations, others have stopped.”

Only the nine European group winners are guaranteed to reach the World Cup, while the eight best runners-up face a playoff. Italy is level on points with Spain at the top of Group G but second on goal difference.

“The primary concern is qualifying, seeing as it’s the first time that only one team goes through and we’re not at the top of the standings,” Ventura said. “To qualify we need the youngsters but also the experience of those less young.”

Italy and Spain, which drew 1-1 in Turin, are next scheduled to meet on Sept. 2. Before that, Italy faces Liechtenstein on June 11 and Albania in Palermo on Friday. Italy also visits the Netherlands for a friendly international next Tuesday.

“The result is extremely important,” Ventura said. “We are aware it will be a delicate match and that will allow us to go to Spain to obtain something concrete.

“I am calm because after three months I have again found a group of players who are ready to give their all.”

Giovinco left off Italy squad because MLS “doesn’t count for much”

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ROME (AP) Despite two months of solid play with Nice, Mario Balotelli remains excluded from Italy’s national team because of his past history as a divisive personality both on and off the field.

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“It’s not due to technical reasons that Balotelli isn’t on the national team,” Italy coach Gian Piero Ventura said Monday. “He has great skills. Nobody is debating his technical abilities. Rather it’s a thousand other factors.”

Since transferring to Nice on deadline day, Balotelli has scored six goals in six French league appearances, helping his new club to first place.

“He’s been back in form for two months now but you can’t think that in two months somebody has changed who they are,” Ventura added.

After scoring only one league goal in each of the past two seasons with Liverpool and AC Milan, respectively, Balotelli never played for Italy under coach Antonio Conte.

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His last appearance for Italy came when the Azzurri were eliminated in the first round of the 2014 World Cup – where he was considered a distraction by several teammates.

At 26, though, Balotelli potentially has many more years as a top player.

Ventura said he will have a discussion with Balotelli “to see if he has the desire to be a leader within the team.”

“There are another two and a half months to evaluate,” the coach added, looking ahead to a possible return in 2017.

Meanwhile, forward Graziano Pelle also remains excluded after refusing to shake Ventura’s hand following a substitution during a 1-1 draw with Spain last month.

“I thought it would be useful for him to have a pause to reflect,” Ventura said of Pelle, who transferred from Southampton to Chinese club Shandong Luneng in July.

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As for Sebastian Giovinco, Ventura said the high-scoring forward for MLS club Toronto FC has been left out because he “plays in a league that doesn’t count for much.”

Italy is training for a World Cup qualifier at Liechtenstein on Saturday and a friendly with Germany three days later in Milan.

Ventura plans to rely on the forward tandem of Andrea Belotti and Ciro Immobile – both of whom played under him at Torino.

“They’re two players I don’t need to get to know. I know them perfectly well since I coached them,” Ventura said. “They have a chance to take over the national team.”

Immobile has scored nine goals in 12 matches for Lazio this season, while Belotti has eight in 10 for Torino.

Andrew Dampf on Twitter: http://www.twitter.com/asdampf