Roberto Mancini

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Mancini says he wants Balotelli back with Italy on merits

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FLORENCE, Italy (AP) — Italy coach Roberto Mancini says he prefers to recall Mario Balotelli for his qualities as a player, not as a message against racism.

Balotelli has not been called up by Mancini in more than a year but Italian soccer federation president Gabriele Gravina has said naming him in the squad would send a strong message after the Brescia forward was racially abused recently.

Mancini said Monday that “if Balotelli gets another chance, it will be because he deserves it from a technical point of view.”

Balotelli was included in Mancini’s first two squads but again was omitted from upcoming European qualifiers against Bosnia-Herzegovina and Armenia.

Balotelli has long said his goal is to rejoin the national team for next year’s European Championship.

The 29-year-old striker has scored two goals in seven matches this season.

Teen Zaniolo could make Italy debut after stunning season

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FLORENCE, Italy (AP) Nicolo Zaniolo had not played a match in Italy’s top flight less than a year ago but could make his first appearance for Italy this week.

Zaniolo, 19, has had a breakthrough season and has emerged as one of Serie A’s most promising talents since his move to Roma from Inter Milan last summer.

[ MORE: PL Player of Year candidates ]

He scored his first Champions League goals last month as he led Roma to a 2-1 win at home against Porto in the first leg of the round of 16.

Although Zaniolo received an Italy call-up in September, he did not make an appearance. He could make his debut in the upcoming European Championship qualifiers against Finland and Liechtenstein.

“It’s credit to (former Roma coach Eusebio) Di Francesco, who gave him the possibility of playing almost all the time, in the Champions League and in Serie A, giving him enormous confidence,” Italy coach Roberto Mancini said on Monday.

“He is a young lad. He has always done well. It’s clear that when you’re young, you can have moments that are more difficult, but he has talent and now he has the chance to make his international debut and that’s the same for everyone who is here.”

Zaniolo is one of two teenagers in the Italy squad. Juventus forward Moise Kean turned 19 last month.

There are also five players under 22 on the 29-man list.

“What’s interesting in the league is that, compared to four or five months ago, the youngsters are playing more and so they have improved,” Mancini said. “This is a positive thing for them, for Italian football, for the Italy team and the under-21 team.

“I called up a few more players so I can evaluate them and because I don’t know the conditions of all the lads. I also had to leave some out with great sadness.”

One of those players left out was Mario Balotelli.

Balotelli was included in Mancini’s first two squads and played his first matches for Italy since the 2014 World Cup. This is the third consecutive time he has been omitted despite scoring five goals in eight matches for Marseille.

“Mario is still not in optimal condition for the national team,” Mancini said. “He has improved on a physical level. He has a good scoring average and can improve more. We expect a lot from him.”

Also called up was veteran Fabio Quagliarella, who could make his first Italy appearance in nearly 10 years.

Quagliarella, 36, leads Serie A in scoring. The Sampdoria forward has 21 goals, two more than Juventus’ Cristiano Ronaldo and Milan’s Krzysztof Piatek.

Italy kicks off its qualifying campaign on Saturday against Finland in Udine before hosting Liechtenstein in Parma three days later.

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Mancini might hand debut to Italy’s “next Pirlo” vs. USMNT

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GENK, Belgium (AP) Italian teenager Sandro Tonali could become the first player born in the millennium to play for the Azzurri on Tuesday in a friendly against the United States.

[ PREVIEW: USMNT face Italy in 2018 finale | Should Pulisic move to PL? ]

The hype around Tonal has labeled the 18-year-old midfielder the next Andrea Pirlo.

Tonali has never played in the Italian top flight, and made his professional debut only 14 months ago for Serie B side Brescia, but has impressed sufficiently to be summoned by the national side.

He didn’t feature on Saturday in the 0-0 draw against Portugal in the UEFA Nations League but he and other young players will likely get their chance against the U.S.

“We’re here to look at players like Tonali,” Italy coach Roberto Mancini said on Monday. “And I’m curious to see them, too.

“If the players from Saturday have recovered and are well they’ll play. But then of course there will be space for others since it’s a test. We’re curious to see Tonali at work, as well as the other youngsters.”

Five of the players who started at San Siro on Saturday are unavailable: Giorgio Chiellini, Alessandro Florenzi, Lorenzo Inisgne, Ciro Immobile and Jorginho have been allowed to return to their clubs, as well as Lorenzo Pellegrini.

[ UEFA Nations League: Germany end year with late collapse, relegation ]

Sassuolo midfielder Stefano Sensi and Hoffenheim forward Vincenzo Grifo could also be in line for their debuts.

Mancini will be hoping whoever he picks will find the back of the net against the U.S., and end Italy’s struggles.

Defender Chiellini, who made his 100th appearance for Italy on Saturday, was the top goalscorer among those called up for the two matches, having netted eight times for the team.

“It’s a problem because if you don’t score you don’t win,” Mancini said. “But in the matches against Ukraine, Poland, and Portugal we created more than 20 chances.

“It’s just a question of bad luck. Let’s hope the wheel will turn soon. What’s important is to continue creating chances and playing in attack.”

Mancini wants to ‘bring Italy back where it belongs’

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MILAN (AP) A year after its stunning elimination by Sweden in a World Cup playoff, Italy is back at the San Siro stadium for another potentially decisive match.

The Azzurri have to beat Cristiano Ronaldo-less Portugal on Saturday and then hope the European champion does not defeat Poland three days later in order to reach the UEFA Nations League finals.

[ MORE: Netherlands wins, Germany relegated ]

“We would like to advance, and we’ll try to, but the No. 1 objective remains qualifying for the European Championship,” coach Roberto Mancini said on Friday.

Portugal leads Group 4 with a perfect six points, Italy has four, and Poland one.

The group winner advances to the Final Four in June. Poland is already assured of finishing last in the group and will be relegated to League B.

Mancini was hired after previous coach Gian Piero Ventura was blamed for Italy’s failed World Cup qualification.

“I see a team that wants to roll its sleeves up and bring Italy back where it belongs,” Mancini said. “Let’s be clear, we still need some time, but we’re on the right path.”

Defender Giorgio Chiellini is slated to make his 100th appearance for Italy while wearing the captain’s armband.

“I want to celebrate the achievement only at the end of the match,” Chiellini said. “First let’s focus on Portugal, try to bring home three points and provide continuity to the good work done to this point.”

Chiellini retired from the national team in the aftermath of the loss to Sweden but then changed his mind.

“The real disappointment came in June when many of my club teammates left for Russia while I was preparing my suitcases for vacation,” Chiellini said.

Fellow defender Alessio Romagnoli left Italy’s squad on Friday with a muscular injury, and Italy is also without forward Federico Bernardeschi.

Bernardeschi was a key performer in the 1-0 win over Poland last month, lining up alongside Lorenzo Insigne and Federico Chiesa.

Unable to use the same lineup, Mancini announced that Ciro Immobile will likely start at center forward.

Italy has had trouble scoring.

The last time the Azzurri scored more than one goal was in May, a 2-1 win over Saudi Arabia in a friendly , while the last time they accomplished the feat in a competitive match was in June 2017, a 5-0 victory over Liechtenstein in a World Cup qualifier.

Italy next plays the United States in a friendly in Genk, Belgium, on Tuesday.

Mancini announced Chiellini, Alessandro Florenzi, Jorginho and Insigne would be sent home after the Portugal game and Gianluca Mancini and Moise Kean would be called up from the under-21 side.

Mancini and Chiellini both expressed disappointment that Ronaldo, who is taking a break from the national team, isn’t with Portugal.

“It’s always great to face the best players,” Mancini said. “Anyhow, Portugal remains a great squad even without Cristiano.”

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Donnarumma praises Mancini after Poland win

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After Italy held firm and pipped Poland 1-0 with a goal in the 92nd minute. It’s their steadfastness in pursuing that winner that has Gianluigi Donnarumma impressed.

But that steadfastness didn’t just appear out of thin air. It’s been instilled by Mancini, the Italian goalkeeper said.

[ RECAP: Italy beats Poland at the death ]

“The atmosphere is calm: we needed this victory, we deserved it and it gives us even more strength to move forward with calmness,” Donnarumma said to Rai Sport after the match. “Even if it’s difficult not to, we try not to think about anything other than ourselves. We needed this win to convince ourselves that we’re a great group. The Coach makes us give our best in every training session. We have to listen to him and go on like this.”

Italy controlled the match, holding 70% of possession and popping off 18 shots to Poland’s six. Jorginho hit the post in the very first minute, while Lorenzo Insigne rattled the woodwork on the half-hour mark. Wojciech Szczesny made a few fine saves as well that threatened to frustrate Italy. They remained opportunistic, and found the winner as Cristiano Biraghi tapped in a corner at the far post.

“Tonight we faced a great Szczesny and I congratulate him,” Donnarumma said. “We controlled the game for almost its entirety and it wasn’t easy. We have to continue like this and go one game at a time.”

Mancini took over Italy in May, six months after they were eliminated from World Cup contention. The win over Poland is the first since beating Saudi Arabia in late May. However, the team has lost just once in that span as well, falling 1-0 to Portugal earlier last month.