Spotlight on Mario Balotelli as Italy target Croatia jinx

Italy host Croatia at the San Siro Sunday in a crucial Euro 2016 qualifier with misfiring striker Mario Balotelli`s place in the team under threat.

Spotlight on Mario Balotelli as Italy target Croatia jinx

Rome: Italy host Croatia at the San Siro Sunday in a crucial Euro 2016 qualifier with misfiring striker Mario Balotelli`s place in the team under threat.

The four-time world champions are in reconstruction mode after a second straight first-round exit from the World Cup where mercurial striker Balotelli failed to live up to expectations.

After a poor start to his Liverpool career, Balotelli was sidelined by new coach Antonio Conte for their opening three Group H wins against Norway, Azerbaijan and Malta.

And without him Italy are currently running second behind leaders Croatia on goal difference.

To general surprise, Conte called Balotelli into his squad for Croatia and a friendly against Albania on Tuesday in Genoa.

Speculation from Italy`s Coverciano training ground this week suggested it could be Balotelli`s last chance to convince Conte that he still has a future in blue.

Although Balotelli is reported to be suffering from a minor hamstring injury and is not expected to start against Niko Kovac`s side, the Reds striker has been watched closely all week.

"Today he`s here and he has to answer to me. I will judge him by what he does in the next seven to nine days," said Conte.

Italy`s players, at least in public, have been quick to rally to Balotelli`s cause.

"Until now Balotelli has been training well and that`s what counts," said Juventus defender Giorgio Chiellini.

"For you (media), what counts is how many times he sneezes, goes to the toilet, calls his mum or his girlfriend.

"All we care about is the squad, winning on Sunday and this is something you can`t do on your own, we have to do it together."

Milan midfielder Mattia De Sciglio called on the media to "leave him alone" and added: "He`s always in the spotlight because of his unique character, but he`s a good guy and easy to get along with.

"On the pitch he has what it takes to come back and prove people wrong."

Sassuolo`s Simone Zaza and Ciro Immobile of Borussia Dortmund are expected to spearhead Italy`s attack as the hosts bid to claim a first win over Croatia in 72 years (although Croatia was part of the former Yugoslavia from WWII until 1992).

Roma midfielder Daniele De Rossi, who will pick up his 100th cap, should marshall the midfield in the absence of Juventus stalwart Andrea Pirlo and Marco Verratti of Paris Saint Germain.

For former Milan forward Zvonimir Boban, now a respected football pundit in Italy, their absences could be telling.

"Without Pirlo and Verratti, Italy are a lot less fluid," Boban told Gazzetta dello Sport on Friday.

Italy`s last victory over Croatia came months before the country entered World War II - when Vittorio Pozzo`s side ran out 4-0 winners at Genoa`s Luigi Ferraris stadium in April 1942.

In their six meetings since then, Croatia have won three and drawn three against Italy.

Boban, who also underlined the importance of Real Madrid midfielder Luka Modric, added: "It will be a tactical, difficult and physical game. It will probably end in a draw. We`ll put Italy in difficulty."

Croatia have scored nine goals in three wins over Malta (2-0), Bulgaria (1-0) and Azerbaijan (6-0) and Modric is hoping Pirlo`s absence swings the game in their favour.

"Pirlo usually plays a crucial role for Italy so there`s no doubt they will miss him," said Modric, who was among 12 players rested in midweek when Croatia faced Argentina in London.

"The battle in midfield could be decisive."

De Sciglio, however, believes Conte has instilled Italy with enough tactical nous and belief to end their winless run against the Croats, whose biggest achievement internationally was their third place finish at the 1998 World Cup.

"We`ve worked hard on all our phases of play, and that has simplified things," he added.

"We`re not afraid (of Croatia). We have to be vigilant because they have a lot of quality players, but we are better than they are."