Italy coach Ventura remains wary of calling up Balotelli

ROME (AP) Six goals in six French league matches were not enough to convince Italy coach Gian Piero Ventura to restore Mario Balotelli to the national team.

The often-divisive striker also needs to convince Ventura that he has cleaned up his act - both on and off the pitch.

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

Since transferring on a free transfer from Liverpool to Nice on deadline day, Balotelli has helped the unheralded club to first place in France and has seven goals in eight matches in all competitions.

''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.

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.

Balotelli was also involved in high-profile incidents when playing in England, notably when fireworks were let off during a party at his mansion while he was playing for Manchester City.

The day after the firework incident he wore a t-shirt with the message: `Why always me?' referring to his habit of always being in the spotlight. He then played brilliantly, scoring twice in a 6-1 win away to Manchester United.

At 26 years old, 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 2 1/2 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.

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.

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

Manolo Gabbiadini, another forward, left the training center with an undescribed injury sustained while playing for Napoli at the weekend. Gianluca Lapadula, whose first Serie A goal proved the winner for AC Milan in a 2-1 victory over Palermo on Sunday, was given his first call up as a replacement.

Midfielder Claudio Marchisio was also sent home Monday with an injured left leg, two days after being called back to the national team after six months out with a torn cruciate ligament, which forced him to miss the European Championship.

Atalanta midfielder Roberto Gagliardini and Genoa defender Armando Izzo were called up after Marchisio left.

Defenders Giorgio Chiellini and Andrea Barzagli are also out injured, with Juventus announcing Monday that Barzagli will miss two months with a dislocated left shoulder.

Italy is level on points with Group G leader Spain, one point ahead of Albania and Israel, while Macedonia and Liechtenstein are last with zero points.

Liechtenstein lost 8-0 to Spain in September but the score was only 1-0 until the 55th minute.

''It's a match to prepare very carefully in order to avoid surprises,'' Ventura said.

Then Italy will attempt to seek some revenge against World Cup champion Germany, which eliminated the Azzurri in the quarterfinals of Euro 2016 in a penalty shootout.

''To be honest I would have preferred a different type of friendly,'' Ventura said. ''We need to get our younger players in condition step by step. Germany is the strongest and best organized team around, so it will be like a graduation exam.''

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

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