Teen star Zaniolo close to Italy debut
FLORENCE, Italy (AP):
Nicolo Zaniolo had not played a match in Italy's top flight less than a year ago, but could make his first appearance for Italy this week.
Zaniolo, 19, has had a breakthrough season and has emerged as one of Serie A's most promising talents since his move to Roma from Inter Milan last summer.
He scored his first Champions League goals last month as he led Roma to a 2-1 win at home against Porto in the first leg of the round of 16.
Although Zaniolo received an Italy call-up in September, he did not make an appearance. He could make his debut in the upcoming European Championship qualifiers against Finland and Liechtenstein.
"It's credit to (former Roma coach Eusebio) Di Francesco, who gave him the possibility of playing almost all the time, in the Champions League and in Serie A, giving him enormous confidence," Italy coach Roberto Mancini said yesterday.
"He is a young lad. He has always done well. It's clear that when you're young, you can have moments that are more difficult, but he has talent and now he has the chance to make his international debut and that's the same for everyone who is here."
Zaniolo is one of two teenagers in the Italy squad. Juventus forward Moise Kean turned 19 last month.
There are also five players under 22 on the 29-man list.
"What's interesting in the league is that, compared to four or five months ago, the youngsters are playing more and so they have improved," Mancini said. "This is a positive thing for them, for Italian football, for the Italy team and the under-21 team.
"I called up a few more players so I can evaluate them and because I don't know the conditions of all the lads. I also had to leave some out with great sadness."
One of those players left out was Mario Balotelli.
Balotelli was included in Mancini's first two squads and played his first matches for Italy since the 2014 World Cup. This is the third consecutive time he has been omitted despite scoring five goals in eight matches for Marseille.
"Mario is still not in optimal condition for the national team," Mancini said. "He has improved on a physical level. He has a good scoring average and can improve more. We expect a lot from him."
Also called up was veteran Fabio Quagliarella, who could make his first Italy appearance in nearly 10 years.
Quagliarella, 36, leads Serie A in scoring. The Sampdoria forward has 21 goals, two more than Juventus' Cristiano Ronaldo and Milan's Krzysztof Piatek.