Soccer

Prandelli almost left Balotelli out of Italy squad

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FLORENCE, Italy (AP)

Italy coach Cesare Prandelli was close to leaving Manchester City striker Mario Balotelli out of his squad for upcoming 2014 World Cup qualifying matches.

Prandelli said Monday that he was annoyed Balotelli chose to undergo eye surgery just before the last two qualifiers, ruling him out of the matches against Bulgaria and Malta.

''I admit, I was upset about the fact that Balotelli chose to have his eye operation when there were two international games,'' Prandelli said. ''I thought about it for a bit, but then I thought of the games he has played for his country and I was comforted. It will be yet another chance to see if he wants to be a champion.''

Italy plays in Armenia on Friday before entertaining Denmark in Milan, four days later.

The Italy coach left out Antonio Cassano despite his solid start to the season, but insists it is not the end of the Inter Milan striker's international career.

''In the last two years I won my bet on him when no-one thought he could give us a hand,'' Prandelli said. ''Now I want to see something different. But it's not the end of his Italy career.

''I just preferred to look at younger lads as I know perfectly what Cassano can give us. I've made the same choice with (Antonio) Di Natale, knowing that I could always call on him to resolve any problems.''

Despite his desire to focus on youth, Prandelli has recalled Alberto Gilardino, who at 30 is the same age as Cassano.

''Alberto knows perfectly what is his role now, which is to be the fifth or sixth striker,'' Prandelli said. ''If I call up Cassano it's to play him from the start.''

Prandelli has also called up Stephan El Shaarawy after the teenage striker's impressive start to the season.

El Shaarawy made his debut in a friendly against England but this is his first squad inclusion for a competitive international fixture.

El Shaarawy heads a group of young players that Prandelli has been including in his squads since Italy's loss to World Cup winner Spain in the European Championship final.

''I'm focusing on a nice little group of them, without naming any names so as not to put too much responsibility on them,'' Prandelli said. ''I spoke with (Spain coach Vicente) Del Bosque 20 days ago, and he also told me that after the World Cup he changed 50 percent of the players.

''They then went to the next European Championship and won again. Renewing the team is the only possible route.''

Torino defender Angelo Ogbonna withdrew from the squad on Monday afternoon after worsening problems with his prostate gland.

AC Milan defender Ignazio Abate failed to take part in training and remains in bed with the flu, but is expected to recover for Friday's match.



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