MILAN, Italy (AFP) –
Italy coach Cesare Prandelli says it’s time for Mario Balotelli to show whether he is title-winning material a day after unveiling his squad for two Word Cup qualifiers against Armenia and Denmark.
Balotelli missed Italy’s first two Group B matches, a lucky draw in Bulgaria and a shaky victory over Malta, because he had to undergo an eye operation.
Prandelli named the Manchester City striker in a reinvigorated 27-man squad for Friday’s away match in Armenia and the hosting of Denmark at Milan’s San Siro stadium four days later.
But he admitted to being “upset” by the timing of Balotelli’s eye operation. He now expects the striker to return and give Italy the boost that their shaky performances last month suggests they require.
“I admit I was upset by Balotelli’s decision to have an eye operation the same week that two Italy games were on the horizon,” Prandelli told reporters on Monday.
“I’ve called him up to try and asses whether he wants to become a champion.”
Prandelli was appointed after Italy, the 2006 World Cup winners, failed to get past the group stage of the 2010 edition.
And the former Fiorentina coach upset predictions by steering the Azzurri to the Euro 2012 final against Spain, who won 4-0.
After two underwhelming displays against Bulgaria and Malta, his search for the team that can first qualify for Brazil, and carry high hopes into the 2014 tournament, is far from over.
Prandelli on Sunday called up several players who have been absent from the national team in recent years.
Alberto Gilardino, 30, has scored five goals in seven games for Bologna this season and Zenit Saint Petersburg defender Domenico Criscito, 25, returns after missing Euro 2012 after his name cropped up in a match-fixing scandal, in which he was later cleared.
Inter Milan defender Andrea Ranocchia, 24, returns after a 10-month absence while Lazio midfielder Antonio Candreva, 25, gets the chance to make only his third Italy appearance.
The future of Italy, however, has not been neglected.
“Young people are the future, and we have to focus on them,” said Prandelli, who admitted he was inspired by Spain coach Vicente Del Bosque.
“Del Bosque told me that after the World Cup in South Africa he changed 50 percent of his squad. Renovation is the key word.”
Striker Stephan El Shaarawy, who has scored five goals in seven league games for AC Milan, and fellow 19-year-old Marco Verratti, a Paris St Germain midfielder, were also called up.
Napoli striker Lorenzo Insigne, who reinvigorated Italy when he came on as a substitute against Malta to make his senior debut last month, was left at home as was mis-firing AC Milan striker Giampaolo Pazzini.
Roma’s Mattia Destro, 21, survived the cull to join Balotelli, El Shaarawy, Gilardino, Sebastian Giovinco and Pablo Osvaldo in the forwards line.
Goalkeepers: Gianluigi Buffon (Juventus), Morgan De Sanctis (Napoli), Salvatore Sirigu (Paris Saint-Germain/FRA), Emiliano Viviano (Fiorentina)
Defenders: Ignazio Abate (AC Milan), Federico Balzaretti (Roma), Andrea Barzagli (Juventus), Leonardo Bonucci (Juventus), Giorgio Chiellini (Juventus), Domenico Criscito (Zenit Saint Peterburg/RUS), Christian Maggio (Napoli), Angelo Ogbonna (Torino), Andrea Ranocchia (Inter)
Midfielders: Antonio Candreva (Lazio), Daniele De Rossi (Roma), Alessandro Diamanti (Bologna), Emanuele Giaccherini (Juventus), Claudio Marchisio (Juventus), Riccardo Montolivo (AC Milan), Andrea Pirlo (Juventus), Marco Verratti (Paris Saint-Germain)
Forwards: Mario Balotelli (Manchester City), Mattia Destro (Roma), Stephan El Shaarawy (AC Milan), Alberto Gilardino (Bologna), Sebastian Giovinco (Juventus), Pablo Osvaldo (Roma)