Antonio Conte’s tenure on the Italy bench has been brief, but there’s been no shortage of drama nonetheless.
The former Juventus boss was handed the task of righting the ship after the Azzurri’s disastrous World Cup three months ago following Cesare Prandelli’s departure.
Italy have gone on to win their first four matches under Conte, though lacklustre performances against Azerbaijan and Malta drew heavy criticism from the media.
But the storyline that has monopolised the most attention by far has been Mario Balotelli’s omission from the 45-year-old’s first two squads – and whether the Liverpool striker would soon return.
Conte was said to have reservations about calling up the controversial forward, who had done himself no favours by failing to score in the Premier League since moving to Anfield.
Despite Balotelli’s enduring drought in the English top flight, however, Conte has now recalled him to the Azzurri for games against Croatia and Albania.
And just as he was made to answer for previously dropping the 23-year-old, the Italy coach has faced questions about why he’s chosen to bring Balotelli back.
Conte told a press conference: “A month ago, I had to explain his omission, today why I called him up.
“The simple answer is the Italy, after the disappointment of the World Cup, is trying to build something beautiful that we can bring to our qualification and a good European Championship.
“It was planned that Balotelli would be called to be evaluated, because you cannot judge on hearsay. Surely it’s right that we assess him closely.
“I prefer to evaluate players because it’s right to test them and see whether they share any technical and tactical similarities with my idea of the fame and the affinity in their mind.
“Called up during his worst spell? He plays as a starter for Liverpool, many other players aren’t even starters.”
Balotelli still has a mountain to climb to get on the pitch for Italy. Three times Conte has paired Simone Zaza and Ciro Immobile up front, with Graziano Pelle stepping in for Zaza against Malta.
Still, Conte’s Italy is one that is in flux. He’s called up a wide variety of players since taking charge, and clearly is willing to give even an out-of-form Balotelli a chance.
Beyond this, how the Italian’s call-up will affect his Liverpool form remains to be seen. Reasonably, Balotelli could glean some confidence from it at a time when he truly needs it.
A positive spell with the Azzurri squad could do wonders for the struggling Reds new boy, and how he gets on with Conte will go some way to setting the tone for him going forward.