Italy’s Verratti steps up to replace legend Pirlo

Italy's Verratti steps up to replace legend Pirlo
Marco Verratti joined PSG from Pescara in 2012. Photo: Franck Fife/AFP
Italy coach Antonio Conte has called on Marco Verratti to take the next step towards replacing Andrea Pirlo as the Azzurri's midfield orchestrator ahead of this weekend's Euro 2016 qualifier away to Bulgaria.

Verratti has long been considered the heir to Italy great Pirlo and Saturday's game in Sofia offers a rare chance for the 22-year-old to stake his claim.

Both Juventus midfielder Pirlo, who is recovering from injury, and Roma midfielder Daniele De Rossi were left out of Conte's squad for Saturday as well as Tuesday's friendly against England in Turin.

Verratti is tipped for a central midfield role alongside Claudio Marchisio and Antonio Candreva, with Matteo Darmian and Manuel Pasqual playing in the wide positions.

When asked about Pirlo and De Rossi, Conte told reporters at Italy's Coverciano training base near Florence: "They're both great players who still have a lot to offer.

"But this is a good opportunity for a player like Verratti. The time is right for him to take the reins in midfield."

Unlike 35-year-old Pirlo, who has spent his entire career in Italy's top flight, Verratti has yet to play for a top Italian club having joined PSG in 2012 from Pescara, where his performances won plaudits throughout Italy.

But that has not stopped the diminutive midfielder from dreaming big.

After PSG swept Chelsea aside to qualify for the Champions League quarter-finals, he told Gazzetta dello Sport last week: "Some great players are ahead of me, but if I'm given the chance to show what I can do I will give it everything.

"Until now, Conte has given me opportunities. It's up to me to exploit every one of them."

Conte is set to deploy his trademark 3-5-2 formation on Saturday with Juventus trio Giorgio Chiellini, Leonardo Bonucci and Andrea Barzagli in defence ahead of Juve keeper Gianluigi Buffon.

Barzagli recently made his return for Juventus following a lengthy injury lay-off, and admitted: "I was limping for six, seven months even just to go to the bathroom. I began to feel totally estranged from the squad."

However question marks remain over Italy's strike force. Argentinian-born Franco Vazquez (Palermo) and Brazilian-born Eder (Sampdoria) became the latest 'oriundi' – players born to Italian emigrant families – to be called up to the national squad.

But they could have to wait for their Italy debut, with Borussia Dortmund striker Ciro Immobile being tipped to partner Sassuolo's Simone Zaza against Bulgaria.

READ MORE: Italy's football squad gets foreign boost

Photo by Giuseppe Cacace/AFP

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