November 10, 2014

ROME (AP) Perhaps Mario Balotelli's struggles with Liverpool will have a positive effect on his return to Italy's squad.

That's what Azzurri coach Antonio Conte is hoping for after giving Balotelli a surprising call-up for a key European Championship qualifier against Croatia on Sunday.

It's the first time Conte has included Balotelli since taking over from Cesare Prandelli after Italy's first-round elimination from the World Cup.

''Maybe it's even better that Balotelli is coming in during a rough period,'' Conte said Monday as Italy began training in Florence. ''I think he'll dedicate himself to the national team.''

Since transferring from AC Milan, Balotelli has scored only two goals in 14 appearances for Liverpool - and none in the Premier League.

''Glad to be back on the National Team and proud to represent my country,'' Balotelli wrote on Facebook.

Without Balotelli, Ciro Immobile and Simone Zaza have taken over as the starters in attack under Conte's preferred 3-5-2 formation. It remains to be seen if Balotelli will be used as a bench option or possibly replace Zaza.

''All players are equal. Balotelli, like everyone else, could play if he's in form but he could also end up on the bench or even in the tribune,'' Conte said. ''Balotelli has a lot of experience with the national team, having played a World Cup and a European Championship. That's important but it's not enough. He's going to have to show me he can adapt to my type of football.

''Others have already shown that. Immobile, Zaza, (Graziano) Pelle and (Sebastian) Giovinco start with an advantage,'' Conte added. ''If over the course of a week Balotelli shows me he's reached the level of the others then he could pass in front of them.''

While Italy has won all four of its matches under Conte, the Azzurri struggled somewhat in their last two games, a 2-1 win over Azerbaijan and a 1-0 victory over Malta.

''I'm looking forward to knowing (Balotelli). It's good to have competition,'' Zaza said. ''It could help the squad. I knew sooner or later he would be called up. He's one of the best Italian forwards.''

Italy and Croatia are level at the top of Group H with nine points each. Two days after Sunday's match at the San Siro - where Balotelli formerly played for both Inter and AC Milan - Italy hosts Albania in Genoa for a friendly.

Conte said speculation that he had called up Balotelli merely to meet sponsor demands was ''nonsense.''

''I don't exclude anyone,'' said the coach who guided Juventus to the last three Serie A titles. ''Balotelli is playing as a starter for Liverpool. I'm forced to call up many players who are not starters for their clubs.''

Balotelli has scored 13 goals in 33 appearances for Italy, and was instrumental in the Azzurri's run to the final of Euro 2012. But after scoring in Italy's opening win over England at the World Cup, both he and the rest of Prandelli's attack struggled in the next two matches against Costa Rica and Uruguay.

Balotelli was the focus of a big portion of the blame for Italy's early exit from the tournament in Brazil.

''Four months ago when he scored against England, you hailed Balotelli as Italy's national treasure,'' Conte said. ''Four months later, he's being (attacked). I think that's part of the problem. He's just a normal player.''

Conte deflected questions over reports in English tabloids focusing on Balotelli's late-night partying habits.

''I'm going to evaluate Balotelli for what he does from here on,'' Conte said. ''You know my rules and how severe I am. I'm not going to waver on that.''


Andrew Dampf can be followed at

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