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Conte primes Juve-inspired Italy for Bulgaria

World Cup flops Italy look to continue their strong start to Euro 2016 qualifying when they face Bulgaria away in a Group H clash that could revive memories of coach Antonio Conte's spell at Juventus.

Conte primes Juve-inspired Italy for Bulgaria
Antonio Conte quit Juventus with three scudetto titles to his name. Photo: Fredrik Varfjell/AFP

Italy are unbeaten after four opening games, having suffered their only setback in a 1-1 draw with group leaders Croatia in November.

Conte quit Juventus with three scudetto titles to his name before inheriting the Azzurri helm from Cesare Prandelli following their disastrous, first-round exit from the World Cup in Brazil.

Those achievements, and his proximity to the nucleus of his current squad, appear to be bearing fruit as Conte seeks to lead Italy back on the road to success.

"Conte is the same as the person who coached Juventus, he hasn't changed since he made the switch," said Leonardo Bonucci, one of the five Juventus players expected to line up against Luboslav Penev's side in Sofia.

"He has very strong ideas about what football he wants to play and while he was at Juventus we honed our technical and tactical skills."

Although Juventus midfielder Andrea Pirlo is missing through injury, the Italian champions will be well represented.

A three-man Juventus defence of Giorgio Chiellini, Bonucci and Andrea Barzagli will line up in front of Juventus goalkeeper Gianluigi Buffon, while Juve's Claudio Marchisio and Antonio Candreva of Lazio are expected to flank Paris Saint Germain midfielder Marco Verratti.

Verratti will replace Pirlo in the central midfield role, with Torino's Matteo Darmian and Manuel Pasqual of Fiorentina expected to occupy the wingback roles of which Conte was so fond while coach of the Bianconeri.

Verratti, who has scored twice for Italy in ten appearances, admits it's a rare chance to showcase his potential on the international stage.

READ MORE: Verratti seizes chance in Italy squad

Marco Verratti. Photo by Franck Fife/AFP

"I'm going to make the most of this opportunity," said Verratti. "It's normal not to start out as first choice in the national team, it could hardly be any different when you have players like Pirlo and De Rossi ahead of you in the reckoning."

The big question from Italian fans ahead of Saturday concerns Conte's choice of strikers.

Simone Zaza – a young and powerful front man who can score both in and outside the box – could line up with Ciro Immobile, who has hit a rich vein of form for German Bundesliga stutterers Borussia Dortmund.

But Conte has other options in Napoli's Manolo Gabbiadini and Graziano Pelle of Southampton. And the recent first-time call-ups of Argentinian-born Franco Vazquez and Eder, born in Brazil, have given Conte extra options, while igniting debate about who or who should not wear the Azzurro shirt.

READ MORE: Italy's football squad gets foreign boost

"I believe an Italian player deserves to play in the national team, while those who are not born in Italy, even if they have Italian family, shouldn't have that right," said Inter Milan coach Roberto Mancini.

Vazquez and Eder are both regarded as 'oriundi' – players born outside Italy to families who emigrated from the country several generations ago – but both hold dual nationality and are eligible to play for Italy.

"There's no debate," said Carlo Tavecchio, the president of Italy's football federation (FIGC). "If a player has Italian citizenship, he is eligible. Conte has absolute freedom to select whoever he wants to play."

Following the World Cup debacle which sorely exposed Italy's reliance on misfiring Liverpool striker Mario Balotelli, who has yet to be called up by Conte, the four-time World Cup winners are perhaps right to explore all options.

Whoever lines up at the Vasil Levski stadium on Saturday will do so knowing Bulgaria have taken only four points from their four ganes so far having been held 1-1 by Malta last time out.

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FOOTBALL

Euro 2020: Concern about virus spread after Italy players’ ‘unauthorised’ victory parade through Rome

Italy’s national football team reportedly insisted on taking an open-top bus tour through Rome to show off their European Championship trophy to crowds of fans - despite city authorities forbidding it amid concern about the spread of coronavirus.

Euro 2020: Concern about virus spread after Italy players' ‘unauthorised’ victory parade through Rome
Photo: Tiziana Fabi/AFP

The team’s bus parade through the city on Monday night following their Euro 2020 triumph “was not authorised”, according to Matteo Piantedosi the head of Rome’s prefettura (the public safety authority).

Thousands of fans packed the streets of central Rome to see the team celebrate their cup win after beating England on penalties in the final.

READ ALSO: ‘Football came home’: Italy celebrates Euro 2020 victory over England

Piantedosi told Italian newspaper Corriere della Sera on Wednesday: “We had denied permission to celebrate Italy’s victory in the European Championships on the open bus, but the pact was not respected.”

Piantedosi, who is Rome’s top public security official, said police had “no choice” but to let the parade go ahead after players Giorgio Chiellini and Leonardo Bonucci insisted on it.

Photo: Vincenzo Pinto/AFP

A meeting had been held on Friday with the Italian football federation (FIGC) to discuss plans for the celebrations if Italy won, said Piantedosi.

“I had agreed the line with Interior Minister Luciana Lamorgese and Chief of Police Lamberto Giannini,” he said.

“It was clearly explained that [the parade] was not possible. We said we could not authorize it.”

Piantedosi said the Italian football federation (FIGC) initially agreed to hold a “controlled” ceremony in Rome’s central Piazza del Popolo instead of the parade.

After players insisted on the bus tour on Monday however, Piantedosi said, authorities reluctantly let them go ahead due to fears of sparking public disorder.

“At that point we had no choice but to acknowledge the situation and handle it in the best way we could,” he said.

READ ALSO: Covid cases on the rise in Europe once again as WHO warns of Euro 2020 risk

Photo: Andreas Solaro/AFP

In a statement on Wednesday, the FIGC said it had acted responsibly but decided not to disappoint fans who had come to celebrate with the team.

Footage of large crowds thronging the bus carrying the ‘Azzurri’ and the European Championship trophy through the capital however fuelled concerns about new outbreaks of coronavirus, after Italy’s infection rate began to rise again last week.

The World Health Organization warned earlier this month that crowds and gatherings connected to football matches will fuel a new rise in cases across Europe this summer.

READ ALSO: Delta variant in Italy will be ‘prevalent within 10 days’: health official

Italy’s health minister Roberto Speranza also voiced concerns on Monday about the consequences of people gathering to watch sporting events.

He said the European football championship win was “a great joy after terrible months,” but “even in these moments of national pride we can’t forget that our ‘game’ to defeat Covid is not yet won.”

There are currently minimal health restrictions in place across Italy, however masks are supposed to be worn in crowded public places, including outdoors.

“Footage shows that police were virtually the only ones [in the crowd] wearing masks,” said Piantedosi.

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