Sports

Antonio Conte plays down exclusion of forward Mario Balotelli from Italy squad again

  • Liverpool's Mario Balotelli looks down during the Champions League Group B soccer match between FC Basel 1893 and Liverpool FC, at the St. Jakob-Park stadium in Basel, Switzerland, Wednesday, Oct. 1, 2014. (AP Photo/Keystone, Peter Klaunzer)

    Liverpool's Mario Balotelli looks down during the Champions League Group B soccer match between FC Basel 1893 and Liverpool FC, at the St. Jakob-Park stadium in Basel, Switzerland, Wednesday, Oct. 1, 2014. (AP Photo/Keystone, Peter Klaunzer)  (The Associated Press)

  • Liverpool's Mario Balotelli, center, leaves the pitch at halftime during the Champions League Group B soccer match between FC Basel 1893 and Liverpool FC, at the St. Jakob-Park stadium in Basel, Switzerland, Wednesday, Oct. 1, 2014. (AP Photo/Keystone, Peter Klaunzer)

    Liverpool's Mario Balotelli, center, leaves the pitch at halftime during the Champions League Group B soccer match between FC Basel 1893 and Liverpool FC, at the St. Jakob-Park stadium in Basel, Switzerland, Wednesday, Oct. 1, 2014. (AP Photo/Keystone, Peter Klaunzer)  (The Associated Press)

Italy coach Antonio Conte has played down his exclusion of Liverpool forward Mario Balotelli for upcoming European Championship qualifying matches.

Since transferring to Liverpool from AC Milan after the World Cup, Balotelli has yet to score in five appearances in the Premier League and was also left off last month's Italy squad.

Conte says "he started on a new path, it's not easy. Let's give him time to integrate himself in this new league."

Southampton striker Graziano Pelle received his first call up and Conte says he "represents that which I've said from the very first day — meritocracy."

Italy hosts Azerbaijan in Palermo on Friday, then makes a short trip to visit Malta three days later.