'Italy needs workhorses, not grass grazers' – Conte warns Balotelli & Co.

September 20th, 2014

The coach insists his omission of the Liverpool striker was a logical one, but warned his players he expects hard work in training if they want to play for their country

Antonio Conte has warned Mario Balotelli and other Italy players that he only wants workhorses, not “grass grazers”, in his team.

Balotelli was surprisingly left out of Conte’s first squad as Azzurri coach, prompting some to ponder whether the striker would need to improve his attitude to return to the national team.

Conte has now given weight to this theory but insisted that absentees from his last squad – including Liverpool’s Balotelli and Atletico Madrid attacker Alessio Cerci – have hope of making future call-ups.

“Anyone who knows me knows the way I work,” he told Corriere dello Sport. “Prior to the games earlier this month, there were some players who were not up to scratch in terms of form and in terms of games played, such as Balotelli and Cerci.

“Choosing not to summon them was natural from this point of view. I evaluate who will play based on attitudes on and off the field.

“There is no player exempt from being picked, but I demand professionalism during training and in technical meetings. My team must memorise the tactics. If you are not careful, and you spend your time in training grazing on grass, you will not get along with me.”

Referring to Marco Verratti’s absence from the pitch in September’s clashes with Netherlands and Norway, Conte added: “We know Verratti’s qualities, but in his position there’s also competition from Daniele De Rossi, Andrea Pirlo, Riccardo Montolivo and Alberto Aquilani.

“The main problem is that if you have quality and do not run, then that’s not enough for me. You’ve got to give me intensity.”

Conte also acknowledged that he is keeping tabs on Southampton striker Graziano Pelle, who has started his Southampton career in strong fashion following his summer move to the Premier League.

“Pelle scored 50 goals in 57 matches in Netherlands and is scoring in England,” the ex-Juventus boss said. “We’re keeping an eye on him like so many others.

“But if you are in my Italy team, it is because you are doing something extraordinary, not just because you have scored three goals. Otherwise it means that anyone can get in the national team, as it has been lately. We must restore the rightful order.”

Italy are in action again on October 10 against Azerbaijan in their second European Championship qualification game.

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Who misses Mario? AC Milan already reaping rewards from Balotelli sale

September 20th, 2014

COMMENT: The Rossoneri have looked more creative in attack in two games since selling the Italy star than they ever did when he wore the red and black stripes

By Kris Voakes | International Football Correspondent

It was clear that Mario Balotelli was no longer wanted by AC Milan months before the Italy striker eventually arrived in Liverpool.

Their desire to get shot of the problem striker was so blatant that the Premier League side capitalised to take the ex-Inter man off their hands for just €20 million. For a club struggling to make ends meet, it was hardly the greatest of sales patter.

Had they been able to play hard ball, the extra cash that would have brought for them might have been able to help fill some of the gaps left in Filippo Inzaghi’s first-team squad.

Persistent issues in defence remain, with five goals conceded in two games so far this term – even despite Diego Lopez’s penalty save from Antonio Candreva against Lazio in week one.

The Spaniard’s error against Parma though, as well as an inability to retain the ball convincingly in winning positions, showed that there are also problems to patch up still in goal and in midfield. Due to Balotelli’s cheap sale, there is little to no money left to spend on those issues.

But that’s about as far as regrets will go over the 24-year-old’s exit right now, because up front Milan have been magnificent in his absence.

During Balotelli’s stay at Milanello, the Rossoneri were one-dimensional, predictable, unattractive and lacking in any discernible creativity. Where previously they had a plan A of lumping the ball up to Zlatan Ibrahimovic, they had simply switched their focus to a different striker.

That tactic would have worked had Balotelli been the kind of No.9 to fulfil the obligations required. But instead he remained the rather workshy, surly, often disinterested enigma who was previously seen causing frustration for team-mates, coaches and fans at Inter and Manchester City.

In the post-Mario Milan, Inzaghi has found a magnificent mix of excitement, flair and a willingness to work. It was no coincidence that Stephan El Shaarawy turned in his best performance since the pre-Balotelli days when Lazio came to town on opening night.

Moreover, Keisuke Honda has finally looked like a fine signing, with a new understanding of when and where to contribute in the final third. Add in the wise addition of Atalanta wide man Giacomo Bonaventura, and Inzaghi has made the very most of the new vibe about Milan’s attack.

Yet it is Jeremy Menez who has stolen the show so far. His performances as a false nine in Pippo’s 4-3-3 setup have led many to wonder whether the loan signing of Fernando Torres wasn’t a superfluous move.

The Frenchman was in sensational form in last week’s thrilling 5-4 win over Parma, providing a snapshot of exactly what was missing in the centre-forward position for a year-and-a-half. Milan players are now looking up to find a series of options where previously they would have seen none.

Interchanges are more frequent and fluid. The majority of shots are coming from more realistic positions thanks to more creative build-up play. More goals have arrived as a result.

As quick turnarounds in fortune go, Milan’s has been one of the most stunning. And the entire group is revelling in the positivity.

Serious questions remain, as opponents will begin to find resolutions to the Rossoneri’s attacking verve – beginning with Juventus at San Siro on Saturday night. But Inzaghi and his men have at least bought themselves some time with six early points won using an approach that fans can enjoy.

A continuation of the magnificent start they have made against the champions this weekend would be just reward for the brash, bold way they have so far gone about covering their significant weaknesses.

And the fact that this is all being done thanks in large part to the offloading of Balotelli should not be forgotten for one second.

“We are certainly losing a great player, but we gain something more in team spirit and hunger,” Inzaghi said upon the striker’s sale in August.

He has already been proven right.

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Berlusconi's failure to spend is a problem for AC Milan – Zambrotta

September 19th, 2014

EXCLUSIVE: The 2006 World Cup winner spoke to Goal about two of his former clubs, while also offering his opinion on Mario Balotelli

By Rahul Bali

Silvio Berlusconi’s failure to spend heavily in the transfer market has become a “real problem” for AC Milan, says former Rossoneri star Gianluca Zambrotta.

The media tycoon turned Milan into the biggest club in the world after buying the San Siro outfit in 1986, regularly splashing the cash on superstars such as Ruud Gullit, George Weah and later Kaka and Zlatan Ibrahimovic.

However, the spending has dried up in recent years – leading to Milan finishing a disappointing eighth in Serie A last season.

“Berlusconi doesn’t want to spend like he did in the past,” Zambrotta told Goal at Eracle Sports Center in Como.

“It’s a real problem when you consider how Italy used to be and the current wealth of clubs like Barcelona, Real Madrid, Manchester City, Manchester United and PSG.

“[New coach] Pippo Inzaghi has arrived and he has what it takes to do a good job despite the limits of his squad. But, of course, Milan can’t afford to buy top champions like in the past.

“As a whole, Serie A has less appeal than the Premier League. The main issue is budget. We can’t afford to spend €80 million on a transfer. Top players are attracted to lucrative deals.”

Zambrotta, who won one Scudetto with Milan during four years at the club, also commented on Mario Balotelli’s failed spell with the Rossoneri, which led to the controversial striker being sold to Liverpool this summer.

“Balotelli tried to return to Italy after his first experience with Inter and he wanted to make an impact at Milan,” the former full-back explained.

“But he’s still young and he needs to improve and become more mature. He’s skilled and talented, but he has some way to go.

“He needs to improve his mentality. If he manages to do that, he can become a top player.”

On Saturday evening, Milan host another of Zambrotta’s former clubs Juventus in the big Serie A match of the weekend.

The Bianconeri are now managed by Massimiliano Allegri, who coached Zambrotta at Milan during their 2011 Scudetto success.

“Allegri had his own style and system at AC Milan. At Juventus he hasn’t yet changed [predecessor] Antonio Conte’s style,” he explained.

“In my opinion, if a coach is good enough to make his team play in different ways, he has more chance of managing the issues he may face during each game. Juventus have won three consecutive titles, so they’re very competitive.

“I rate Allegri very highly because he is a very well-prepared coach, but he has a difficult task as after three consecutive titles even second place would be considered as a failure.”

Zambrotta is currently a player-coach at Swiss club Chiasso and he has set his sights on managing a top team in the future.

“Since last December I have been helping with coaching at Chiasso,” the 2006 World Cup winner noted.

“This is just the beginning, and I am at a club where I can quietly improve and grow. Then in the future I hope to be able to coach a bigger team in Italy or abroad. Little by Little, step by step, I hope to reach higher targets.”

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Pasqual: Conte right to replace Balotelli with Zaza

September 17th, 2014

EXCLUSIVE: The Fiorentina defender says that while the Sassuolo striker does not have the same ability as the Liverpool forward, he “puts his soul on the field”

Manuel Pasqual believes Simone Zaza’s performances for Italy have already vindicated coach Antonio Conte’s decision to axe Mario Balotelli.

The inclusion of uncapped Sassuolo striker Zaza in the squad for the friendly with Netherlands and subsequent Euro 2016 qualifier against Norway made headlines, not least because it effectively came at the expense of Balotelli, who had led the line for the Azzurri since Euro 2012.

However, Pasqual feels that Zaza showed the kind of commitment and passion in his first two appearances for his country that Balotelli allegedly lacks.

“Mario, of course, has great quality,” the versatile left-back told Goal. “But I would like to use the words of his agent [Mino Raiola], who said this after his summer move from AC Milan to Liverpool: ‘This is the last chance for Mario to show how to be a champion and a top player.’

“Zaza certainly has fewer qualities than Balotelli in attack but he puts his soul on the field. Zaza does what Conte demands and the result is there for all to see. We won two games and he scored too [against Norway]. So that’s the difference.

“The message of Conte was that the national team berth is open to everyone and players of every age. However, you have to be enthusiastic and hard worker. You have to show us that you’re not a ‘sticker’ but a real player.

“Also, if you are enthusiastic and a hard worker, you can give top performance for the national team. You should be proud to be there and that’s Antonio’s message.”

Pasqual, of course, was left out of Cesare Prandelli’s Italy squad for this summer’s World Cup but received an immediate recall from Conte – and the Fiorentina man freely admits that he is delighted by the change of leadership.

“I was really, really sad when I wasn’t selected for the World Cup,” he confessed. “Prandelli said I would be one of his last choices for the World Cup only because I am 32.

“But I’m lucky as the new coach believes in quality of players and that it doesn’t matter what age they are. With Conte’s style of play, I think I could be useful for the national team.”

Gerrard the hero as Balotelli delivers – Champions League drama returns to Liverpool

September 16th, 2014

It was a far from vintage performance from the Merseyside outfit at Anfield, on their return to Europe’s top table, but they bagged three points in fitting style

By Greg Stobart at Anfield

On a special night in which Champions League football returned to Liverpool after five years, this match produced the drama associated with the club’s exploits in Europe’s elite competition.

The Reds fans would not have it any other way. In a competition in which Steven Gerrard has dragged them back from oblivion on so many occasions, it was fitting that he was the hero here.

It was not on the same scale as Istanbul in 2005 or the match here against Olympiakos earlier in that campaign, but the Liverpool captain kept his cool from the penalty spot to earn his side all three points right at the death.

The city has been hit by Champions League fever this month, with the Reds’ opener against Bulgarian side Ludogorets coinciding with the launch of the movie ‘One Night In Istanbul’ to commemorate that famous triumph nine years ago.

Before the Champions League album blared out of the speaker system, Anfield roared You’ll Never Walk Alone with a gusto that suggested this could be one of those memorable European nights on Merseyside. But once the action got under way, Brendan Rodgers’ side fluffed their lines for long periods.

They were slow to move the ball in possession and vulnerable to the counter-attack against visitors that they probably underestimated heading into the fixture.

Far from the whipping boys, Ludogorets look like a team that will ensure a very competitive group completed by holders Real Madrid and Swiss side Basel.

Liverpool will feel they should qualify for the knockout stage of the competition and while they didn’t exactly thrive under the pressure here, the result was all-important, especially in front of their own supporters.

“It was a great night for everyone at the club, to play in the Champions League for the first time in five years, and to get the win was very important,” was the simple but to-the-point assessment of Rodgers.

It was a special night, and they got the job done. Liverpool were well below par and still look like they are struggling for ideas in the final third without Luis Suarez, but they will improve as the competition and the season go on.

Equally important for Rodgers will be the sight of Mario Balotelli scoring his first goal since his €20 million transfer to Anfield.

The Italian’s work rate could not be faulted but until his 82nd minute strike he looked well short of sharpness in the Ludogorets penalty area, struggling to escape from defenders and seeing his best chance in the first half denied by a block from a defender.

Yet when a real chance presented itself, he made no mistake, firing an unstoppable finish into the side netting. Like Gerrard, Balotelli has a sense of timing and occasion – and now he can start to relax in a Liverpool shirt.

It was little surprise that Ludogorets equalised through Dani Abalo Paulos in the last minute of normal time given the visitors had constantly turned Liverpool’s defence and hit the post earlier in the half. Such casual defending will be ruthlessly punished if the Reds play in the same manner against Real Madrid at the Bernabeu on November 4.

Then, in the 93rd minute, Javi Manquillo seized on a poor touch from Ludogorets goalkeeper Milan Borjan. Anfield erupted as though the ball had hit the net as the referee pointed to the spot.

It might as well have been a goal. Gerrard doesn’t miss, he’s made for these occasions, the kind of which are littered in the history of this competition for the five-time European champions.

And there will be more drama to come this season – it’s simply how they do it.

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