Italy embark on reconstruction job with Dutch test
Italy's bid to rebuild after a humiliating World Cup faces its first test on Thursday in the shape of a Dutch squad also embarking on a new era.
With new coach Antonio Conte having eschewed the services of Liverpool recruit Mario Balotelli, Italy will be at far from full strength for a friendly at Bari that will serve as a warm-up to tricky competitive encounters for both sides.
Italy face Norway in Oslo next week while the Dutch travel to the Czech Republic in their first Euro 2016 qualifiers.
The match against a Dutch side that reached the semi-finals in Brazil offers the Azzurri the opportunity to reclaim some pride after the morale-shredding ignominy of exiting the World Cup at the group stage.
Conte has vowed to lead the national squad back to what he regards as its rightful position at the top of the global game, despite bemoaning a lack of playing resources he blames on the number of foreign strikers playing in Serie A.
Balotelli is suspended for the trip to Norway and Conte has declined to elaborate further on whether that was the main reason for the striker not being included in his first squad.
The first black player to represent Italy at a major tournament has been subjected to criticism in his home country over what was perceived as a poor attitude during the unsuccessful World Cup campaign.
Although Conte has refused to talk specifically about Balotelli, some of his comments about character being more important than playing ability have been interpreted as a sign he may regard Liverpool's new signing as more trouble than he is worth.
Other notable absences include injured playmaker Andrea Pirlo, who has hinted he could extend his international career into the Conte era, and defenders Giorgio Chiellini and Andrea Barzagli. Italian officials are hoping Chiellini will be fit in time to play in Oslo.
Inter Milan striker Pablo Osvaldo dropped out earlier this week due to a groin injury, forcing Conte to call up the quixotic Fabio Quagliarella, a player the coach rarely selected last season when they were both at Italian champions Juventus.
During his three-season, three-title reign at the Turin giants, Conte had to endure fierce abuse at most other Serie A stadiums. He is expecting a warmer reception in his new role but insists he will not be reining in the fiery touchline antics that have become part of the former international midfielder's brand.
"I like the players to feel my presence, the referees and the opposition too," he said this week. "I have always been like that. If you are born round it is difficult to become square."
Conte wants an Italy in his own image, saying this week that his ideal international should be "humble, proud and ... mean."
- New start for Dutch -
Holland are also under new management with the vastly experienced Guus Hiddink having taken over from Louis van Gaal following the latter's departure for Manchester United on the back of the Oranje's exhilarating run to the semi-finals in Brazil.
"Succeeding Louis after a superb World Cup is an enormous challenge," Hiddink said. "But I have experience and that doesn't frighten me. I'm taking over a team in good health which knows what it is doing."
A combination of injury and illness means Hiddink, 67, will begin his second stint as national coach without big names Arjen Robben, Klaas Jan Huntelaar and Rafael van der Vaart.
Feyenoord playmaker Jordy Clasie and and Aston Villa defender Ron Vlaar also miss out.
The friendly should be interesting for tactics aficionados with Conte's Italy set to switch to a 3-5-2 line-up while Hiddink's Holland are expected to abandon the same formation favoured by Van Gaal and return to a more traditional back four.
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