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.